Big Brother Britain


Richard Moore

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Big Brother Britain

        Britain is a very shabby place these days. London is violent
        enough, but the north of England is a giant no-go area.
        Massive unemployment, low-grade and high-grade crime,
        terrible schools, a bleak, featureless, hopeless landscape
        for the young. That's Britain today.

by Heather Mallick
April 17, 2007

They've really done it now, I often think when I read something particularly 
dire about Britain, which is going the way of the increasingly Stasi-like United
States. The latest news is that Britain is installing live spy cameras that will
shout at people as they walk along the street.

Speaking as a Canadian in the middle, I declare that Tony Blair has gone too far
this time. This shall not stand.

Surely honest Britons will now take to the streets and reclaim the rights they 
won back when they destroyed Margaret Thatcher and her infamous poll tax in 
1990. Surely Blair cannot force daily human/electronic surveillance down the 
throats of the citizenry.

Invariably I am wrong about these things. No one protests. Some peculiar 
shameful event occurs courtesy of Blair ‹ jury trials dwindle; the police are 
allowed to arrest anyone and take photos, fingerprints and DNA without charging 
them; all 11-year-olds are to be tested for criminal tendencies ‹ and life 
carries on. So it goes, as the late Kurt Vonnegut liked to say.

Britons are like everyone else in the West, endlessly adaptable. I never thought
they would accept the imposition of a compulsory identity card, the lack of 
which can cause a citizen to be thrown into jail. This was a people who tore 
apart the employment-killing textile looms in 1811, who rose up against slavery,
who fought the fascist Blackshirts on Cable Street in 1936.

But it does look as though Britons are going to accept the cameras. There will 
be little protest from a people I once thought of as principled and truculent, a
nation that didn't panic over IRA bombs.

Heed this voice

Britain already has more CCTVs than almost any other nation. First, these closed
circuit TV cameras just took pictures. Then some were going to be given 
microphones in order to ³listen in² on conversations in public places. (This 
approaches the two-way home telescreens in George Orwell's Nineteen 

Now they are going to hector people in public.

Britain is a very shabby place these days. London is violent enough, but the 
north of England is a giant no-go area. Massive unemployment, low-grade and 
high-grade crime, terrible schools, a bleak, featureless, hopeless landscape for
the young. That's Britain today.

Add to this now these new ³social control² cameras that will allow municipal 
employees to bark out commands at whoever they see misbehaving within range of 
their speakers. The home secretary, which means Emperor of All Matters Domestic,
says people will be reprimanded for drunkenness or being in groups or doing 
anything anti-social.

Opponents, including the Conservative Party, have called it ³Big Brother gone 
mad.² But no. ³It's interactive!² says Home Secretary John Reid. Worse, the 
government is testing children to be ³the voice.² As the Guardian columnist 
Charlie Brooker remarked, what Reid has done here ³is confuse the word 
'interactive' with 'nightmarish.'²

Can you imagine standing in a metro station waiting for your bus and being 
harangued by a disembodied voice? What would it say? I know what it will say:

³Put that down now!²

³She may be your girlfriend but you do that sort of thing in private.²

³Oooooh, that makes me sick. Can't you use a Kleenex like a normal person?²

³Go home! Your friends are rubbish, you're wasting your life. Try to grasp the 
concept of postponing gratification. It's called emotional intelligence, child! 
At least get out of school before you self-destruct. Trouble's coming and it's 
wearing its baseball cap backwards. You've got junk in your trunk, sister!²

I'm telling

And if it's a terrifying child's voice, it will sing out, as all children do, 
³Nah-nah nah-nah-nah.² Or, as Brooker suggests, ³You're a bad man and I'm 
telling on you and my dad's going to tear your head off.²

And then will come this: ³Are you just 10 black kids waiting for a bus or are 
you a gang? Either separate yourselves or stop being black.²

Implausible? Only days ago, Blair, shyly admitting he was ³lurching into total 
frankness,² said black culture was responsible for the spate of current 

³Pretending it is not young black kids doing it² isn't helping, he said, making 
no mention of widespread poverty or the demonization of Britain's white poor, 
aka ³chavs,² which stands for ³Council House and Violent.² Perhaps Blair is 
desperately trying to distract attention from his Iraq legacy with his own 
version of Enoch Powell's ³rivers of blood² speech.

This is madness

³He do the police in different voices,² the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, but he didn't
mean this. Why would Brits allow themselves to be so abused?

Get this: Unemployed people in Britain who phone in to ask about jobless 
benefits are to be given lie-detector tests over the phone. If a caller sounds 
at all nervous or untrustworthy (read lower class or ³chav²), something called 
Voice Risk Analysis technology will measure the voice changes, pick out the 
dodgy ones and deny benefits.

The company behind this plan is called Capita. All modern corporations in 
Britain are called something like this, a name as generic as northeasterly wind.

This is madness.

What worries me most about all this is that the Brits are smart. If Britain is 
turning into Orwell's nightmare without a complaint from the populace, and 
Americans are shouting down anyone who has committed the crime of reading a book
once, where does that leave us nice middle-ground Canadians?

We are halfway between the well-meaning brutes and the authoritarian martinets. 
For once, I hope we can rise above the element that surrounds us. Instead of 
going along to get along, could we rage against the tide and say no to this sort
of thing?

It would be un-Canadian. But no one else is living up to their national 
stereotype either.

This week

Carolyn Burke's 2005 biography of the trans-Atlantic surrealist photographer Lee
Miller is beautifully done. Miller, a genius at observation in words and 
pictures, has been dismissed, typically, as an assistant to male artists such as
Man Ray. But she was one of the best and bravest journalists in Europe during 
World War II. It took a surrealist to nail down the mad aspect, the strangeness 
of war, ³the filigree² of barbed wire, the staring eyes.

The last Sopranos episodes have arrived. The TV series will become part of the 
soundtrack of our lives. Eventually, having watched it as it appeared will date 
us, like having seen Sarah Bernhardt onstage. Think of that.

The new Anne Lamott essays, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, are grimmer 
than ever. Thus, they are a guide in a dark time.

Heather Mallick appears regularly in This column is printed with 
permission from where it first appeared.

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