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How Britain became a dangerously cynical society with tinges of a police state

London-Burning

 By Simon Davies

If proof was ever needed of the growing cynicism and despair of modern Britain, you need only consider the collapse of public trust in government, the systematic destruction of oversight and accountability, the rise of nationalism and the steady encroachment of a police state – all cheered on by a faltering parliament.

There are thousands of examples of this dysfunction, but I’ve chosen to set the backdrop for this sad story with an anecdote from personal experience. It involves the unhappy demise of a much-heralded plan to build hope and unity for the nation.

Consider the collapse of public trust in government, the systematic destruction of oversight and accountability, the rise of nationalism and the steady encroachment of a police state – all cheered on by a faltering parliament.

Suffering from a weak constitution

The year was 2007, and inspired by a sudden nationwide zeal for constitutional reform, the Policy Engagement Network at the London School of Economics (LSE) hosted an insanely ambitious initiative to lay the foundation for a British Bill of Rights.

There was broad agreement at the time that a Bill of Rights was (at least in principle) the country’s Great Hope – not just for a meaningful horizon of strengthened freedoms, but also for a constructive new national identity. A new Bill of Rights could be the bedrock of a healthier and more confident relationship between citizen and state.

The need for serious and inspirational change was palpable. Following the divisive, decade-long “New Labour” experiment, disenchantment with government and politics had reached a dangerous level. The Scottish Nationalists were gaining ground in their struggle for independence and the Tories (Britain’s centre-right Conservative party) desperately needed a unifying rallying-cry. Meanwhile, far right English nationalism and anti-Europe activism were on the ascendancy.

Simply put, Britain had yet again become a nation divided, comatosed by disillusion and bonded mainly by the occasional sporting celebration.

Sensing the urgent need for change, all political parties had pledged to pursue constitutional reform of one type or another and so the idea of a Bill of Rights soon became common currency. The topic even made it into pub conversation (the litmus test of all truly important British issues).

The key ingredient to make the idea a reality would be a national consultation and consensus-building process – and the LSE’s Future Britain project was seen as the mechanism to deliver that process.

As director of that project, it was my job not just to find agreement among rival political parties, but also to build consensus among the key constitutional reform stakeholders.

Complex as this task was, the project’s genesis was promising. At a packed launch in the LSE’s Old Theatre, senior front-benchers of all the main political parties pledged to work together. Civil society and law reformers joined arms. Unity was the overriding theme of the moment.

A brief moment of unity: The Future Britain launch with Simon Davies (left) with Shadow Attorney General (later Attorney General) Dominic Grieve and Lib Dem Leader (later Deputy Prime Minister) Nick Clegg

A brief moment of unity: The Future Britain launch with Simon Davies (left) with Shadow Attorney General (later Attorney General) Dominic Grieve and Lib Dem Leader (later Deputy Prime Minister) Nick Clegg

It was not to last. Within eighteen months this grand plan turned into a damp squib. Instead of becoming a future path for the nation, the Bill of Rights degenerated into one of the most treacherous episodes of recent UK political history.

The collapse of political integrity

To the rest of the country, this disappointment was just further proof of that Britain was being run by posturing idiots at the helm of a rudderless ship. From where I stood, the malady was far worse.

As soon as the “unity” spin at the project’s launch was expended,political leaders started to show their true colours. The Labour party made it clear to me that they had absolutely no intention of working with the Tories, despite what its leaders had said publicly. The Tory hard-liners said they didn’t trust the “soft” Tories. The Nationalists feared the idea would become a tool to entrench European rights, while the pro-Europeans believed it would become a tool for the nationalists. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats didn’t trust anyone and the Whitehall bureaucracy conspired to make the idea stillborn after only three meetings.

And no-one – absolutely no-one – trusted a third party like me to negotiate the process unless they were in control of that person. In short, every party insisted on exclusively controlling the Bill of Rights – and each was prepared to see the idea sink without trace rather than work alongside political rivals.

The collapse of trust and the rise of cynicism have been fed by hysteria from fiercely competitive mass-circulation red-top tabloids, some of which appear to lack even the semblance of an ethical compass.

 My Future Britain colleague Gus Hosein (now head of Privacy International) and I were not alone in feeling despair over this turn of events. A truly wonderful opportunity had been frozen out of the national psyche – and the culprit was brazen political self-interest.

In hindsight, matters could have been played differently. Instead of talking-up a rigorous, measurable consultation, we could have been pragmatic and flexible, committing to nothing meaningful and leaving the path open for infinite interpretation. But that sort of spin was precisely why Britain had lost so much faith in politics and in authority.

By 2014 the ruling Tory party made it blatantly clear that if a Bill of Rights was to be created, its primary purpose would be to beat the European courts over the head on the issue of protecting the rights of foreigners.

Even by Tory standards, the current conservative government has embarked on a breathtaking programme of legislative regression, imposing freedom-wrecking measures to such an extent that even opponents of the previous repressive Labour government are inclined to yearn for the good old days before the Tories came to power.

The tipping point for many people was the recent‘Transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill’ – aka the gagging bill – which intends to undermine trades unions, limit free speech and impede citizen rights.

The new law will give the government access to trades union membership records, present huge obstacles to democratic participation by charities and NGO’s and will protect powerful corporate lobbyists.

In the light of such measures it’s hardly surprising – in common with many other countries – that public opinion of politicians and the political system in Britain has declined sharply since 2000, evidenced not just through opinion polling but also by declining voter turnout. Now, between 35 and 40 percent of the population fail to vote at national elections, with the vast majority saying that the integrity of politicians is “poor” or “very poor”.

The light regulatory touch

Many people have been stung by what they see as a betrayal of ideology and policy, paving the way for the rise of hard-line movements such as the British National Party (BNP) and the UK Independence Party (UKIP). This trend leaves middle ground politics terrified and risk averse, triggering a further spiral of disenchantment. A minority (37 percent) now support Britain remaining in the EU. The UK is becoming Europhobic,xenophobic, fearful of difference and increasingly intolerant of the outside world.

British Parliament debate on the DRIP bill

British Parliament debate on the DRIP bill

The collapse of trust and the rise of cynicism have been fed by hysteria from fiercely competitive mass-circulation red-top tabloids, some of which appear to lack even the semblance of an ethical compass. They are rarely chastised by politicians, almost all of whom fear the smear of hypocrisy and ridicule.

These media outlets are regulated by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a body that might best be described as a toothless and passive publishers club that watched silently as the worst abuses in newspaper history took place before its eyes.

Despite the violations and criminality by media, police and public officials highlighted in the recent Leveson report into phone hacking, almost nothing has been done to redress the endemic corrupt practice in some sections of the media. As a result, public faith in press regulation and in institutions such as the BBC has suffered.

Having said that, the British public has become accustomed to insipid watchdogs such as the PCC. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for example, has for years acted as an apologist for poor corporate practice, while the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is a borderline apologist for the rising incidence of police misconduct. As one parliamentary report scathingly observed, the IPCC simply doesn’t have the powers or the resources to get to the truth of police malpractice – even if it had the will to try.

Meanwhile, OFCOM – the telecommunications regulator – has more or less removed the public from its stakeholder map and has ranked industry relations significantly above its duty of care to the public.

Britain parades an inexplicable moral authority over the rest of Europe that other countries actually buy into. More importantly, Britain has mastered the science of policy laundering, and exerts a disproportionate influence on surveillance and policing powers throughout Europe. 

This rot had been in process for at least two decades, accelerated by the Labour administration’s pragmatic regulatory philosophy and sealed shut by the new Coalition government’s annihilation of troublesome bodies like the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council. The few watchdogs that remain have either had their teeth removed or they just cannot afford to show any teeth.

This shortcoming is most clearly evident in the oversight mechanisms for Britain’s spy agencies. A former judge is employed part time, equipped with almost no resources, to act as watchdog over three of the most secretive agencies on earth.

It’s little wonder that the UK parliament has never been motivated to create proper oversight. Obfuscation and denial by British spy chiefs has become a disgrace to public trust. The official position on mass surveillance by these agencies has been an orchestrated lie for more than half a century – even more so than in the US. Until as recently as ten years ago British spy chiefs had systematically lied to the public and to Parliament about their involvement with the NSA.

The troubling touches of a police state

While the term “police state” is overused – and is certainly often used out of context – the current British situation presents some parallels that should set alarm bells ringing. Against the backdrop of mass surveillance (CCTV, communications surveillance, data retention etc.), weak oversight and reactionary public opinion, some of the key peripheral elements of a police state are satisfied.

Britain, of course, is not alone in this respect. Empowered by a variety of EU treaties, countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium also enshrine internal policing conditions such as compulsory universal identity disclosure that some dictatorships might envy.

One essential difference is that Britain parades an inexplicable moral authority over the rest of Europe that other countries actually buy into. More importantly, Britain has mastered the science of policy laundering, and exerts a disproportionate influence on surveillance and policing powers throughout Europe.

This influence extends even beyond Europe. Less than a month after the UK rammed the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill through parliament on the pretext of an emergency situation, Australia followed suit with a fast-tracked data retention bill fuelled by the same emergency provisions. The UK’s influence on legislation in the 53 Commonwealth countries and their 2.3 billion citizens cannot easily be overstated.

The notion of the “Police State” is not limited merely to the powers of law enforcement, but includes such aspects as unaccountable power, a default presumption of state secrecy and – as mentioned before – mass surveillance. While Britain’s present legal framework would probably prevent the country from sliding much further down the road to a police state, the threat by the Tories to sever Britain’s human rights obligations (coupled with a weakened parliament and public ambivalence) could well tip it over the edge.

Signs of decay are already abundant. The Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Bill, which was pushed into assent in mid-2014, was a private cross-party deal that circumvented parliamentary and public scrutiny on the false pretext of it being drafted in emergency circumstances.

DRIP provides significant additional powers to ministers and should have been subjected to thorough debate. However, even this weighty abuse of democratic process is not in itself the most worrying aspect. The more distressing element is that for the brief time that MPs could raise concerns, the debating chamber was almost empty. 

The real issue is that cynical Oxbridge pragmatists in pursuit of power are conditioned from an early age to view ideological passion as extremism, and intellectual discourse as a waste of time. Sitting among them can be like being on the set of Jeeves and Wooster.

Of greater concern to the question of the police state is that the DRIP phenomenon is now occurring routinely.  The House of Lords Constitution Committee warned that it was the latest in “an undesirably long line of recent fast-track legislation”. These include law enforcement bills such as the Police (Detention and Bail) Act 2011 and the Police (Complaints and Conduct) Act 2012.

Why is Britain in such a state?

To understand the destructive cynicism of the British population you need look no further than the opportunistic cynicism of its leadership.

That cynicism is deeply rooted in English literature, but it’s especially evident in Oxford and Cambridge universities, graduates of which disproportionately populate both Cabinet and senior Whitehall administrative positions.

The result is a sort of Freemasonry of elites who, in early years, turned their immense intelligence to the exercise of power rather than social engagement with power.

This syndrome was made abundantly clear in 2010, when no fewer than six members of the cabinet of the new government – including the prime minister, foreign secretary, chief secretary to the treasury along with an additional two ministers who attend their meetings – holding a degree in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) from Oxford.

This factor in itself isn’t the problem. The real issue is that cynical Oxbridge pragmatists in pursuit of power are conditioned from an early age to view ideological passion as extremism, and intellectual discourse as a waste of time. Sitting among them can be like being on the set of Jeeves and Wooster.

Maybe Stendhal got it right almost two hundred years ago with the observation: “intelligence and genius forfeit twenty-five per cent of their value on landing in England.”

That’s not to say British leaders are less intelligent than their overseas counterparts; they’re just conditioned to act that way. The rise of a police state may be just one consequence of maintaining control of an elite club that they call “Britain”.