Tuesday 7 April 2009

The police state tightens its grip

Yesterday made me deeply depressed, and not just because it marked the start of a doubtless expensive new tax year. For it was also the day Britain implemented the second stage of the EU Data Retention Directive, requiring details of every email we send and every website we visit to be recorded and retained for a year.

Similar records of all our phone calls and text messages are already being held, so that communicating with each other without State snooping is becoming the sort of challenge I used to associate with spy novels about Russia in the worst days of the KGB.

We can still meet and talk in person, though we will be observed by numerous CCTV cameras as we make our way to the rendezvous. We may also send letters by the Royal Mail without, I believe, having them opened and scanned. But surely that refinement must soon follow, along with the installation of a comprehensive network of microphones to complement the already ubiquitous visual surveillance systems.

Most depressing of all is that, far from protesting about this latest outrageous assault on our civil liberties from Europe, the British Government actually turns out to have been one of the prime movers behind the Directive, and is on record as saying that it does not go far enough.

All for “the fight against terrorism”, you see. Though the bodies who can access the stored data include local councils who, on past form, will use it to crack down on such heinous crimes as putting your bins out on the wrong day or trying to sneak your child into a slightly better school.

I’d also be prepared to place a reasonable bet that it won’t just be Mr Jacqui Smith who comes to regret his choice of viewing, as records of our visits to dubious websites “accidentally” leak into the public domain.

My, how our elected representatives hate it when their privacy is invaded; yet how useless they are when it comes to protecting ours. How useless they are in general, in fact, given that 80% of our laws are now handed down from Brussels and only the small and much maligned “awkward squad” is prepared to speak out on those issues where they could actually make a difference. Now many MPs are exposed as greedy exploiters of the expenses system, too, because their salaries do not properly reflect their huge egos, sorry talents.

This whole sorry mess is admittedly our own fault, for insisting that we don’t just want someone to represent our bit of the North East in Parliament, but for him or her to represent Westminster in the North East, too. Any candidate who stood up at a selection meeting and said “Of course I have no intention of living in your revolting constituency” would be shown the door immediately. So they have to have two homes.

All I can say from personal experience, having had two addresses myself for 20 years (one of which was in that epicentre of the Parliamentary “ooh it’s my main home really” game, Dolphin Square in Pimlico) is that you do not need to earn anything like the sums currently being raked in by many MPs to support that lifestyle. Even if you insist, as I did and they do, on commuting first class.

With the economy crumbling around us, these are dangerous times for democracy. If Parliament is to survive, its members in both Houses must rebuild public respect by moderating their financial demands. They must also give up their disgraceful habit of exempting themselves from the laws they impose on the rest of us, like the child protection register. Above all, they should show themselves willing to stand up and defend those liberties that so many of my father’s and grandfathers’ generations sacrificed their lives to protect.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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