From identifying potential miscreants in childhood to fingerprint-activated iPods, Labour's new crime review takes the theft of our liberty to new extremes
Sunday April 1, 2007
Years ago, I asked some well-known people to write their obituaries for publication during their lifetime. The wonderful Lord Longford said that he was cowardly and had failed to serve his country properly in the war. Robert Maxwell claimed the fall of communism as one of more important personal successes. Both men were wide of the mark.
The thing about writing your own obituary, whether accurately or not, is that nobody is going to believe it anyway. Reputation, like political legacy, is not the possession of the individual to fashion how he or she likes. It is public property and each one of us has to live with that. Even Tony Blair.
Last week, an important part of the Prime Minister's Operation Legacy was published in a policy review document called 'Building on progress: security, crime and justice'. It is a dreary work and reading it, I remembered HL Mencken on President Warren Harding's use of English. 'It reminds me of a string of wet sponges,' wrote Mencken. 'It reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup... it is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself up out of a dark abyss of pish and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.'
Perhaps that's a little unfair because the review document does contain an awful lot that establishes the Prime Minister's character, the obsessions with antisocial behaviour and crime that have been responsible for the 53 law and order bills since 1997, the creation of 3,000 new criminal offences and a rise in the prison population to a record 80,299.
Some have been tempted to see the review as a liberal adjustment, but read it closely and you'll find all the old fixations about the control of the British public and 'bottom-up citizen accountability', a gargoyle of a phrase that leers at you demanding proof of your identity, your innocence and your worth to the state. Instead, it is for the government to demonstrate its worth to us and we are all innocent until proven guilty by a normal court of law.
There is something Maoist in the review's exhortation. Think of the lunacy in China when Mao ordered the people into the fields to bang drums and tins so that the birds could never settle and therefore died of exhaustion and you have the tenor of this report. It is both self-congratulatory and demanding. As long as one bird is alive, none of us can rest. We must press on eradicating all crime and ensuring against the slightest possibility of deviancy.
We are told that every child in the country will be assessed to see if they are likely to turn to crime. Those that comply to a profile set by some grim determinist working for the government will be 'actively managed' by youth justice workers and local social services. This is what Blair meant by being tough on the causes of crime.
In the introduction, he says: 'It was never this government's belief that poverty and deprivation were excuses for crime.' Note the use of the word 'excuse' in this context, rather than the expected 'cause'. It lets the government off the hook about poverty being a contributing factor in crime.
What kind of intervention will the state contemplate? Fatherly chats on responsibility and homework, or will children end up being taken from problem families for a period of special attention and re-education? The implications are sinister; it seems clear that the government is taking too much upon itself. That is the common theme. On page 46, the review says: 'Citizens are asked to accept the gathering of greater levels of information and intelligence in the knowledge that this will facilitate improvements in public safety and law.' Which is to say we must all expect to be under total surveillance from the cradle to the grave.
The review mentions ID cards, mobile fingerprint readers, crowd scanners and an expansion of the DNA database of people who have committed no crime. There will be iPods and mobile phones that will work only when they sense one person's fingerprints. So we will be required to give Apple or Nokia fingerprints before buying a piece of equipment.
There will be automatic visual recognition cameras - no better way of controlling the population in times when the government is under pressure - and we read of virtual courts, in which a 'video-link technology could allow for hearings where a defendant is dealt with at the police station'.
This is utterly wrong. Such a court would not have the chance to examine the defendant in person, to assess his circumstances and character, the likelihood of his telling the truth or the treatment he may have received in the police cells. A video link hides much, for you can never tell what is going on off-camera, what threats are made, what prompts are being held up.
We must perhaps accept that the back-room boys in Blair's blue sky lab may be indulging the Prime Minister with these control fantasies at the same time as seeking to throw this part of his legacy forward into the political culture of the future. We must accept also that they may mean well despite the leaden evidence of autocratic mania.
In all this, there is a very large mystery. At the same time as arguing for the necessity of this 21st-century version of the police state, the report also does a pretty good job of telling us about Blair's great success. 'Crime has fallen 35 per cent since 1997', with 'six million fewer offences committed each year'. And: 'Offences brought to justice increased by 37 per cent from March 2002 to September 2006.' It even admits to the perception gap: 'Two-thirds of the public believe that crime has been rising' when there has, in fact, 'been a significant fall in crime levels since 1997'.
Who has kept this state of siege alive in the minds of the public? The Blair government. How else would the Prime Minister have managed to mount the assault on our liberty that he has?
That is certainly part of his legacy. There is another element which is more hidden or, rather, it is one that we have become used to, and that is the widespread confusion in Blair's administration between state and government. Senior civil servants complain how Blair and his ministers refuse to recognise that in order to function properly they must keep the politics of government at arm's length. Blair's administration thinks of itself as the embodiment of the state. Therefore, everyone who works for the state works for the government.
It is the same attitude that allows the Prime Minister's strategy groups to dream up the bossy, intrusive, controlling, presumptuous and downright dangerous practices described in 'Building on progress'. When Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister, we will be able to judge whether the review is Blair's legacy or New Labour's.
As to a proper memorial for the Prime Minister, a man I would dearly love to be praising now, we must look no further than the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square which falls inside the area where spontaneous demonstration of any sort has been banned by Labour. A modest bronze of an ordinary man, gagged and holding a blank placard perhaps? Or a cascade of birds falling from the sky, each one representing a lost right or freedom?