Did you see this week’s Doctor Who? You didn’t? You’re wondering what the fictional Time Lord has to offer the Prime Minister? (If you’re reading this and are saying, Gordon Who?, then you have some other catching up to do). Actually, this week’s episode didn’t really feature Doctor Who at all. It’s about what would have happened if the various calamities averted by the man in the TARDIS, generally on Christmas Day, hadn’t been averted after all. For the first twenty minutes it’s diverting entertainment, of the ‘very good, but we have seen this kind of episode before’ kind. But then it changes. Crisis hits Britain. The family of Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble are billeted in Leeds (“I am not living in Leeds”), along with two other families including some Italians. It’s hard times, but they’re sure to pull through. Except, after a while, the soldiers take away the Italians to the labour camps, as England is now for the English (the French have previously closed the borders). Just when we’re wondering if we’re actually watching this on family TV, we have an emotional farewell, with Bernard Cribbins in tears, reminding us that “that’s what they called it the last time”. And then we see the Italian family being driven away in an open topped truck, the wife burying her head in the husband’s shoulder as they both weep.
Doctor Who not really your thing? Then perhaps you remember seeing the first two episodes of the fifth series of Spooks, when Harry Pearce and someone unnervingly like Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti are imprisoned under a ‘temporary detention order’.
How do these award winning dramas connect with the rather more lacklustre Gordon Brown? In this: both present a picture of Britain after a few shocks have caused people to put far too much hope and trust in their leaders, and the leaders have responded by rescinding traditional British freedoms for the greater good.
Clearly, a series of invasions by aliens are unlikely to be on the horizon, and even the MI-6 (as script writers still insist on calling SIS) plot which triggers the Spooks episode is pure fiction, notwithstanding what we now know about Harold Wilson’s fears when he was in office.
But the great historical example of this, to which all such fiction alludes, which still looms like a spectre over all debates over freedom, that is, the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, was neither triggered by aliens nor by the machinations of sinister and secret government agents. It was triggered by the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression, and the willingness of ordinary people to sacrifice traditional freedoms for the sake of a supposedly better world.
Gordon Brown has just put through the most wholesale reduction of liberties since the establishment of the Magna Carta. It is unlike anything in the English speaking world. More chilling was its reception by the public. Most people, according to polls, backed Gordon Brown. One man on a vox pop suggested that Brown should go further: “anyone who commits a crime should be kept in prison, until they are either sentenced, or not sentenced”. In other polls, we learn that most people are dissatisfied with the legal system, and want more powers for police and the courts to deal with the criminals swiftly.
Perhaps this all sounds like liberal hand wringing. But, in law, Gordon Brown has created a situation where people may be imprisoned without the intervention of the courts in a situation far short of a genuine emergency. In the six cases that the existing (and equally malign) 28 day legislation has been used, half of the people were never charged. That is to say, no evidence was acquired either before or during their detention that provided a reasonable case for prosecution. But if there was no evidence before their detention, on what basis were they detained in the first place?
In Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change has pulled out of the elections, ostensibly because they will not be ‘free and fair’, though we all knew that they would not be free and fair anyway, but, in reality, most probably because they recognised that violence and killing would increase until Mugabe was confident of victory, and even if Morgan Tsvangirai was victorious, there would be no reason to believe that Mugabe would step aside. But Mugabe has nothing like the legal power to fix the election which Gordon Brown has just given himself. Under the 42 day rule, Mugabe could have had virtually the whole of the MDC rounded up on suspicion of terrorism. He has more or less accused them all of terrorism anyway, he merely lacks a law that would give him the powers he wants.
Of course Gordon Brown would never do such a thing. But, when Lord Carrington negotiated the creation of Zimbabwe in 1980 out of the civil war in Rhodesia, nobody ever thought Robert Mugabe would do such a thing. The whole world watched the ‘miracle of Rhodesia’. The world watched again when the office of prime minister was abolished in 1987 in favour of an executive president.
Clearly, in a world of better organised criminals and better organised terrorists, we need a legislative framework which enables police and the security service to function effectively. But, at the moment, as a nation we are sleep walking into a future where our basic freedoms have been abolished in order to protect them. Can we be so blind? Or is it that most of us feel unthreatened, because we know that only Muslims, and extremists at that (or their family and friends) are liable to be targeted? What about when that is extended to Eastern Europeans? And what to Jews? And then trade-unionists? Then evangelical Christians? Political opponents of the government of the day?
In the words of Martin Niemöller, protestant pastor who died in a Nazi concentration camp:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
If twentieth century history has a lesson, then it is this: when tyranny comes, it does not come as an onslaught, but little by little, as one freedom after another is eroded.