It is hardly reassuring to note that some British politicians think that it's entirely appropriate to think about awarding themselves and their colleagues even more executive powers to wield over the electorate, ostensibly in response to a threat that in reality has probably got little or no foundation.
Recalling an earlier BBC programme, which suggested that the Neo-Con movement in America had been in the habit of deliberately overstating the threat posed by a number of foreign enemies, in order to bolster their own right wing policies, it was also implied that much the same sort of propaganda was regularly being used by a number of leading European democracies to similarly alarm and panic their own civil populations, so that they would then be much more amenable to the sorts of repressive and restrictive legislation that the various executives had it in mind to introduce to their individual countries.
Rather helpfully for our national governments it would seem, Britain more than most countries, has had a long history of facing and dealing with armed religious and political insurgencies, both from within and without its borders, initially from the likes of the IRA and more recently from any one of the various Al Qaeda affiliates and offshoots that have arisen over the past ten to fifteen years. And while each of these in their turn has posed and continues to pose a direct threat to the life and limbs of perfectly innocent civilians, more importantly and perhaps less obviously to most of us, part of the response to each of these threats has been for the government to introduce numerous pieces of legislation that purport to keep us safer, but at the same time help to steadily erode the traditional civil liberties that we all generally take for granted.
Over time, The Race Relations Act 1976, the Public Order Act 1986, the Public Order Act 1994, the Protection From Harassment Act 1997, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, the Serious Organised Crime & Police Act 2005, the Racial & Religious Hatred Act 2006 and the Terrorism Act 2006 are just a few pieces of legislation that have been enacted by various governments and in each in their turn has impacted negatively on aspects our daily lives. Of course, most of us will be unaware of the new restrictions that such pieces of legislation places on us at a personal level, often because as decent law abiding, tax paying citizens we generally don't come into direct contact, or indeed conflict with the law as we get on with leading our, for the most part mundane and unexciting lives.
However, were we to suddenly be taken by the urge to challenge the executive's control over us, in terms of how we can legally assemble, protest, demonstrate, or otherwise oppose the actions of our government, or the law enforcement agencies, then we'd probably very quickly find that we no longer have as many individual "rights" as we first imagined. Ignoring the fact that our traditional "Bobbies on the beat" very rarely pound a beat anywhere any more, increasingly our defenders of the law resemble paramilitary troops, with their stab-proof body armour, their batons, their pepper spray and occasionally even their Tazers or more lethal firearms. We now even have the police's own federation demanding that ALL front line officers be routinely armed with Tazers, even though there is much evidence to suggest that some officers are completely unsuitable to be handed such a potentially lethal device. Clearly, the traditional view that our police forces uphold the law with the public's consent would very quickly be replaced by "policing through force of arms" were some people to have their way; and would doubtless simply represent yet another small step towards the sort of totalitarian regime that these very same people might actually welcome.
Who would have thought for instance that a modern British government would reintroduce legislation that allows for armed troops to be placed on the streets of Britain without the explicit approval of parliament? Similarly, who would have imagined that we need legislation to suspend the traditional Bill of Rights 1689, the Act of Habeas Corpus and the Parliament Act of 1911, which restricts each session of parliament to a maximum 5 year term? Why is it that for a protest to be deemed lawful, the organisers of the event must provide the police with a full six day advance notice of their action? How is it that any protest outside of parliament might well lead to those involved being arrested by the police? How is it that we have allowed ourselves to become one of the most surveilled societies in the world, with increasing amounts of CCTV coverage, mail interceptions and phone-tapping all being employed and permitted under the terms of the mass of fairly intrusive security regulations introduced by the Blair government, mostly without any sort of independent judicial oversight?
While most of these new laws and regulations are said to have been introduced to address a specific threat to, or problem with our society, be that civil strife, terrorism, or even organised crime, it is often the case that rather than just targeting a specific group, be they criminals or terrorists, the scope of these new and restrictive legislative measures also helps to ensure that the entirely innocent and law abiding citizen might become a victim of them too, always assuming of course that that wasn't the intention to begin with.
If you choose to believe that many of these new regulatory powers are generally benign and well intentioned aimed only at restricting the illegal actions of those criminals and terrorists who would threaten our peaceful and law abiding lives, then you probably won't worry too much about having your own personal civil liberties restricted as a result of their introduction. However, if you happen to believe that government, the executive, are more interested in accumulating knowledge and power, in order to consolidate their own positions, then the introduction of such wide ranging legislative measures might be considered to be much more insidious.
Although we live in a democracy of sorts, just what kind of democracy is it that deliberately and purposefully uses a fear of the unknown to steal away some of our most basic freedoms from us? If our freedom of speech, our freedom of thought, our freedom to like or dislike, our freedom to tolerate or not, our freedom to dissent, our freedom to oppose, our freedom to communicate, or our freedom to be anonymous is to be taken away from us, can we honestly continue to say that we live in a democracy, where each of those personal freedoms is largely determined by a politically and ideologically driven statute?
H L Mencken, an American journalist, essayist and magazine editor once remarked that "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and hence clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski also argued that the use of the term 'War On Terror' was intended "to generate a culture of fear deliberately because it "obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue."
Even though there is little doubt that certain groups or individuals exist who would seek to do us harm, either because of political, religious or ethnic extremism, that should not mean that we have to willingly surrender any or all of our hard won personal freedoms in order to protect ourselves from any threatened attacks, most especially when those threats have been entirely invented, or grossly exaggerated with the single intention of reducing our own civil liberties. As has been said before on this blog, government simply cannot hope to successfully legislate for an individual's personal intolerance, antipathy or hatred, simply because that is fundamentally part of the human condition, because people are what they are.
Of course government can legislate against a spiteful, hateful or a racist person's behaviour, as the Labour Party of Tony Blair was minded to do, but not without such legislative measures having a hugely catastrophic effect on everyone else too. After all, who determines what may or may not be be deemed as "offensive", what constitutes "incitement", is any sort of publicly expressed criticism over someone else's religion, ethnicity, race, or culture ever "acceptable"?
To illustrate the point in one particular way. Recent media reports have suggested that anti-semitism is on the rise in the UK, a troubling event at any time, but perhaps more notably given the recent deadly attacks in France, where the Jewish community was known to have been specifically targeted by Islamic gunmen. Interestingly, when looking at the initial reports a few weeks ago, there seems to have been a generalised view that this rise in anti-semitic attacks was actually the responsibility of the British people at large, which as a native Briton, I was more than a little surprised to learn. However, having done a little bit of research online there was then a second school of thought that suggested that the most striking increase in reports of anti-semitism were based in the likes of London, where as most people now accept the indigenous white English population constitute a minority group, having largely been displaced by other racial and ethnic communities. If indeed that happens to be the case, that anti-semitism is on the rise in places like London, where non-native communities are in the majority, then all of a sudden that places an entirely different perspective on the original report, suggesting that any such increase, has very little to do with the white English community, but rather is linked to those non-native groups who have replaced them.
The point is, that only a few days ago on the BBC's Daily Politics show, it was actually being suggested that in response to this supposedly "country wide" rise in anti-semitism, that perhaps even more formal parliamentary legislation was required to deal with the problem, even though no-one has yet proved conclusively or indeed independently that a problem actually exist at all. Yet despite the fact that we have some of the most repressive and restrictive social legislation anywhere in the world, it was still being suggested that we might need some more. Once again though, this particular instance goes to prove, just how easy it is to create a climate of fear amongst parts of the population; and then introduce legislation in response to it, something that we seem to have been doing regularly for the past forty years or so; and yet we still don't seem to have learned from the mistake, we just keep repeating it.