People ask: Can this be happening in Britain? Surely
not. A centuries-old democratic constitution cannot be swept away. Basic human
rights cannot be made abstract. Those who once comforted themselves that a Labor
government would never commit such an epic crime in Iraq might now abandon a last
delusion, that their freedom is inviolable. If they knew.
The dying of freedom in Britain is not news. The pirouettes of ambition of of
the prime minister and his political twin, the treasurer, are news, though of
minimal public interest. Looking back to the 1930s when social democracies were
distracted and powerful cliques imposed their totalitarian ways by stealth and
silence, the warning is clear. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill has
already passed its second parliamentary reading without interest to most Labor
MPs and court journalists; yet it is utterly totalitarian in scope.
Presented by the government as a simple measure for streamlining deregulation,
or "getting rid of red tape," the only red tape it will actually remove
is that of parliamentary scrutiny of government legislation, including this remarkable
bill. It will mean that the government can secretly change the Parliament Act
and the constitution and laws can be struck down by decree from Downing Street.
Blair has demonstrated his taste for absolute power in his abuse of the royal
prerogative, which he has used to bypass Parliament in going to war and in dismissing
landmark High Court judgments, such as that which declared illegal the expulsion
of the entire population of the Chagos islands, now the site of an American military
base. The new bill marks the end of true parliamentary democracy; in its effect,
it is as significant as the U.S. Congress last year abandoning the Bill of Rights.
Those who fail to hear these steps on the road to dictatorship should look at
the government's plans for ID cards, described in its manifesto as "voluntary."
They will be compulsory and worse. An ID card will be different from a driving
license or passport. It will be connected to a database called the NIR (National
Identity Register), where your personal details will be stored. These will include
your fingerprints, a scan of your iris, your residence status and unlimited other
details about your life. If you fail to keep an appointment to be photographed
and fingerprinted, you can be fined up to 2,500 pounds.
Every place that sells alcohol or cigarettes, every post office, every pharmacy,
and every bank will have an NIR terminal where you can be asked to "prove
who you are." Each time you swipe it, a record is made at the NIR. This means
that the government will know every time you withdraw more than 99 pounds from
your bank account. Restaurants and off-licenses (liquor stores) will demand that
the card is swiped so that they are indemnified from prosecution. Private business
will have full access to the NIR. If you apply for a job, your card will have
to be swiped. If you want a London Underground Oyster card, or a supermarket loyalty
card, or a telephone line, or a mobile phone, or an Internet account, your card
will have to be swiped.
In other words, there will be a record of your movements, your phone records and
shopping habits, even the kind of medication you take.
These databases, which can be stored in a device the size of a hand, will be sold
to third parties without you knowing. The ID card will not be your property, and
the Home Secretary will have the right to revoke or suspend it at any time without
explanation. This would prevent you drawing money from a bank. ID cards will not
stop or deter terrorists, as Home Secretary Charles Clarke has now admitted; the
Madrid bombers all carried ID. On March 26, the government silenced the last parliamentary
opposition to the cards when it ruled that the House of Lords could no longer
block legislation contained in a party's manifesto. The Blair clique does not
debate. Like the zealot in Downing Street, its "sincere belief" in its
own veracity is quite enough. When the London School of Economics published a
long study that effectively demolished the government's case for the cards, Charles
Clarke abused it for feeding a "media scare campaign." This is the same
minister who attended every cabinet meeting at which Blair's lies over his decision
to invade Iraq were clear.
This government was reelected with the support of barely a fifth of those eligible
to vote: the second lowest since the franchise. Whatever respectability the famous
suits in television studios try to give him, Blair is demonstrably discredited
as a liar and war criminal. Like the constitution-hijacking bill now reaching
its final stages, and the criminalizing of peaceful protest, ID cards are designed
to control the lives of ordinary citizens (as well as enrich the new Labor-favored
companies that will build the computer systems). A small, determined, and profoundly
undemocratic group is killing freedom in Britain, just as it has killed literally
in Iraq. That is the news. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken," said
Blair at the 2001 Labor Party conference. "The pieces are in flux. Soon
they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us."
First published in the New Statesman.