The Quiet Death of Freedom

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People ask:
Can this be happening in Britain? Surely not. A centuries-old democratic
constitution cannot be swept away. Basic human rights cannot be
made abstract Those who once comforted themselves that a Labour
government would never commit such an epic crime in Iraq might now
abandon a last delusion, that their freedom is inviolable. If they

The dying of
freedom in Britain is not news. The pirouettes of ambition of the
prime minister and his political twin, the treasurer, are news,
though of minimal public interest. Looking back to the 1930s when
social democracies were distracted and powerful cliques imposed
their totalitarian ways by stealth and silence, the warning is clear.
The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill has already passed its
second parliamentary reading without interest to most Labour MPs
and court journalists; yet it is utterly totalitarian in scope.

Presented by
the government as a simple measure for streamlining deregulation,
or “getting rid of red tape," the only red tape it will actually
remove is that of parliamentary scrutiny of government legislation,
including this remarkable bill. It will mean that the government
can secretly change the Parliament Act and the constitution and
laws can be struck down by decree from Downing Street. Blair has
demonstrated his taste for absolute power in his abuse of the royal
prerogative, which he has used to bypass parliament in going to
war and in dismissing landmark High Court judgments, such as that
which declared illegal the expulsion of the entire population of
the Chagos islands, now the site of an American military base. The
new bill marks the end of true parliamentary democracy; in its effect,
it is as significant as the US Congress last year abandoning the
bill of rights.

Those who fail
to hear these steps on the road to dictatorship should look at the
government’s plans for ID cards, described in its manifesto as “voluntary."
They will be compulsory and worse. An ID card will be different
from a driving license or passport. It will be connected to a database
called the NIR (National Identity Register), where your personal
details will be stored. These will include your fingerprints, a
scan of your iris, your residence status and unlimited other details
about your life. If you fail to keep an appointment to be photographed
and fingerprinted, you can be fined up to 2,500.

Every place
that sells alcohol or cigarettes, every post office, every pharmacy
and every bank will have an NIR terminal where you can be asked
to “prove who you are." Each time you swipe it, a record is
made at the NIR. This means that the government will know every
time you withdraw more than 99 from your bank account. Restaurants
and off-licenses (liquor stores) will demand that the card is swiped
so that they are indemnified from prosecution. Private business
will have full access to the NIR. If you apply for a job, your card
will have to be swiped. If you want a London Underground Oyster
card, or a supermarket loyalty card, or a telephone line or a mobile
phone or an Internet account, your card will have to be swiped.

In other words,
there will be a record of your movements, your phone records and
shopping habits, even the kind of medication you take.

These databases,
which can be stored in a device the size of a hand, will be sold
to third parties without you knowing. The ID card will not be your
property and the Home Secretary will have the right to revoke or
suspend it at any time without explanation. This would prevent you
drawing money from a bank. ID cards will not stop or deter terrorists,
as Home Secretary Charles Clarke has now admitted; the Madrid bombers
all carried ID. On 26 March, the government silenced the last parliamentary
opposition to the cards when it ruled that the House of Lords could
no longer block legislation contained in a party’s manifesto. The
Blair clique does not debate. Like the zealot in Downing Street,
its “sincere belief” in its own veracity is quite enough. When the
London School of Economics published a long study that effectively
demolished the government’s case for the cards, Charles Clarke abused
it for feeding a “media scare campaign." This is the same minister
who attended every cabinet meeting at which Blair’s lies over his
decision to invade Iraq were clear.

This government
was reelected with the support of barely a fifth of those eligible
to vote: the second lowest since the franchise. Whatever respectability
the famous suits in television studios try to give him, Blair is
demonstrably discredited as a liar and war criminal. Like the constitution-hijacking
bill now reaching its final stages, and the criminalizing of peaceful
protest, ID cards are designed to control the lives of ordinary
citizens (as well as enrich the new Labour-favoured companies that
will build the computer systems). A small, determined, and profoundly
undemocratic group is killing freedom in Britain, just as it has
killed literally in Iraq. That is the news. “The kaleidoscope has
been shaken,” said Blair at the 2001 Labour Party conference. “The
pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do,
let us reorder this world around us.”

14, 2006

was born and educated in Sydney, Australia. He has been
a war correspondent, filmmaker and playwright. Based in London,
he has written from many countries and has twice won British journalism’s
highest award, that of "Journalist of the Year," for his
work in Vietnam and Cambodia. His new book, Tell
Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs
, is
published by Jonathan Cape in June. This article was first published
in the New Statesman.

John Pilger 2006

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