Friday, March 18, 2005

In the land of the free?

I am back in England today - for the first time since habeas corpus was abolished. It feels odd. Everyone is going about their business as normal, as if nothing had happened.

I was reminded of a story told by a business partner of mine. His grandfather was a leading lawyer in Germany in the Thirties - the author of the best-known commentary on the Civil Code. He was also a Jew. As the Nazis' power grew, my friend's grandfather quietly insisted: "...The Germans are the most civilised nation in the world. This will pass..." He was a patriotic German. He had earned the Iron Cross in the trenches of the Great War. He carried on believing in "his" country. In short, he went about his business as normal. Then one day he received a letter from the Minister of Justice. Without preamble or explanation, it simply announced that his licence to practise law had been revoked.

Finally the truth hit home. He had his family pack up their possessions and they fled to England - escaping the Holocaust. In a poignant gesture some time later, he donated his Iron Cross to an auction to raise money for England's war effort. He had transferred his patriotism to a country he believed protected its peoples' rights. But nothing is forever. Germany was and is a civilised country, but bad and unprincipled leadership took it down an appalling path in the middle of the last century. Britain was and will be a civilised country, but authoritarian leadership is taking it sadly astray.

I don't want to believe that anything so bad is happening in England as happened in Nazi Germany. For one thing the comparison is too trite. I don't want to weaken an important argument by slinging historical mud. Sure, It's tempting to march to Trafalgar Square tomorrow with a banner marked "New Labour; New Nazis" but that would be to lower oneself to Alistair Campbell's level.

If Britain goes wrong (as I fear it may) it will go wrong in its own way. But the parallels with Thirties Germany ARE creepy. Our Government is using an alleged "threat" from a semitic ethnic group ("Muslim extremists") as a justification to suspend civil liberties which ten years ago educated Englishmen would have regarded as their birthright. The threat is unsubstantiated and we are expected to take the word of our country's security services - our "secret police". The government is stepping up police powers on an almost daily basis. It is directing legislation against classes perceived to be its enemies. It is proposing to collate all the State's knowledge of "its" citizens into a centralised database and link it to modern "identity papers". It is dismissing as disloyal the protests of those of us Big Blunkett called "the liberati".

The way the government attacks its enemies is becoming increasingly nasty. Don't like the EU? You are a xenophobe. Don't like immigration? You are a racist. Want to slow the rate of growth in public spending? You are proposing "cuts" equivalent to the salaries of every doctor, teacher and nurse - according to New Labour's agitprop. Worried that Muslims may not vote for a party led by one of the invaders of Iraq, New Labour has even pandered to Muslim anti-semitism by subtle efforts to highlight that the leader of the Opposition is a Jew. It seems you can't be a sincere opponent of this government. You can't be an honest person with a different point of view. No, as an enemy of the ruling Party, you are someone to be denigrated and dismissed in Alistair Campbell's foul and intemperate language.

I feel very sad. This does not feel like my country any more. For all that Russia is a messy dangerous place (as Mr Chubais found out yesterday morning), the people have more spirit than the English and more belief in their future. They have lived through a lot and yet never lost their essential contempt for anyone who wants to set himself up over them as the arbiter of their lives. They know from decades of bitter experience that - in Barry Goldwater's words - a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take it all away.

My docile countrymen, on the other hand, are sleepwalking into a disaster, thinking of nothing but their mortgages. They are dreaming the 20th Century's big deadly dream - that the State will look after them.


Harold/AQ said...

Thank you for posting this.
These are interesting times in the Western Democracies.

Anonymous said...

Just as easily, you could be writing this as an American. We have the similar Patriot Act.

Here, too many people I know shrug when I say these things.

Tom Paine said...

Thanks for the comments. At least in the USA habeas corpus was considered important enough to be written right into the Constitution. Your Constitution - one of the most important documents in the English language - was written at the height of the most liberal era in history. And it is entrenched - it can only be amended by special procedures which make radical change difficult. No human institutions are perfect, but if the liberties that have long characterised the anglosphere survive, the chances are it will be in America. Don't give up the fight. Water the tree of liberty if necessary.

Bishop Hill said...

As I read this post, I was reminded of thoughts I've had several times in the last few weeks. When talking to people in the pub, listening to the politicians campaigning, and so on, I keep finding myself asking whether I have anything in common with them. So few people seem to care about the destruction of their liberties.

New Hampshire sounds nice.

Tom Paine said...

I know exactly what you mean Bishop. They are sleepwalkers. As for America, the equivalent of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (the Patriot Act) is clearly unconstitutional, if someone would like to challenge it. We have no constitutional basis to challenge ours because our Parliament of poodles is, God help us, sovereign.