Bruce Lawson's personal site

We need a war on authoritarianism

It was with incredulity that I read the reports of that David Miranda, partner of the Guardian journalist who worked on the Snowden leaks, was detained by UK agents for 9 hours under anti-terrorism legislation. (In what sense is Snowden related to terrorism, anyway?)

It felt like when I was back in my teens, when the government attempted to ban books and every CND or anti-fascist march I went on (most weekends) would be surrounded by police photographing all the marchers, and every newsletter I received from the British Communist Party was mysteriously opened in transit.

The Thatcher years were dark times for real liberals – the neocons were economic “liberals” but social authoritarians (see Section 28 as an example), and I hoped that the UK was getting better when Blair came to power. Ha!

I used to switch voting between the Labour and Liberal parties, in order to ensure the Tories stayed out. Eventually, I decided I couldn’t vote Labour again while those who supported introducing ID cards were in its hierarchy. For people my age (who grew up in the 70s, just 20 years after the end of WW2), a representative of the state murmuring “papers, please” in a film was a short-cut for Soviet or Nazi state. I’ve always been proud that in the UK, if I’m lawfully going about my business, no-one has a right to ask me to prove who I am. (Of course, if I had been a young black man, the Sus law would have been my nemesis).

But now we have a government made of a coalition of the Liberal Party and the Conservatives that seems to me even more authoritarian. The Conservatives constantly bang on about “rolling back the state”, but that is a smokescreen for ideological dismantling of state benefits, of planning regulations and of redistribution of wealth. The state increasingly meddles in the lives of people in the UK, even though the government promised

We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion. The Coalition: our programme for government (section 3) (PDF, 475K)

Yet they want to censor the Web (probably the UK’s greatest contribution to the modern world) and set up centralised databases of who wishes to view certain types of material with no transparency or accountability, and without a Parliamentary debate. They snoop on us via information provided by the outrageous US PRISM surveillance system. People are hounded for expressing unpleasant views on social networking. They use anti-terrorism legislation to intimidate a journalist. I’m too scared to go on protests because of heavy-handed policing – Ian Tomlinson was killed by the Metropolitan Police.

I used to mock Americans who were programmed to believe their government was corrupt and intrusive. Of course, that can lead to weirdos in the mountains with huge caches of legal guns, or the absurdities of an American friend of mine who told me once that she had no moral obligation to pay any tax while bemoaning the fact that there is no NHS in the USA.

But I’m starting to feel that the Americans who are healthily suspicious of government have a point. Just as any company in a capitalist economy tends to monopoly (the imperative to maximise profit and marketshare inexorably points that way), it seems that, without proper check and balances, all government tends towards authoritarianism.

It’s obvious that in the UK we no longer have the correct checks and balances. “They” do as they please, because we – and “they” – have forgotten that they work for us, and are not our masters. This doesn’t feel as the UK should. We, the people, need to declare a war on authoritarianism.

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13 Responses to “ We need a war on authoritarianism ”

Comment by VInny Fonseca


I couldn’t agree more. I’d like to be a bit more proactive on activism, but I don’t know where to start.

Everything is hitting too close to home. Torrent sites closed when they’re not illegal, the internet filter aka porn ban, which is not only for porn but also for very vague subjects like esoteric materials and extremist views, filtered google results, etc…

Is there any immediate and decisive action we can take against this meddling with the internet, or do we just wait for “them” to shoot themselves on the foot when the backlash happens? It seems waiting is not a good idea because “they” are using textbook politics to manipulate the public’s short memory.

The fact that we cannot pinpoint who “they” are is also not a good sign, and it generally means there are a few individuals at every level who is doing something for this plan to go forward, kind of like terrorist cells work with their decentralized power structure.

I’m part of “Fight for the Future” and “Electronic Frontier Foundation” groups, but they focus much more on the American side of the internet fight, which affects us but indirectly. Is there something similar in the UK?



Comment by Georgina

As an active member of the Liberal *Democrats* Party (the Social Democrats joined us in the 80s, which I feel has always affected our direction to be nearer the Labour Party) I know the efforts that people went to to stop the snooping charter. I Chair a local party, and one of my members (an amazing woman, Dr Jenny Woods) worked very hard behind the scenes to advise the Liberal Democrat MPs as to why this bill shouldn’t be going through.

I know most people don’t see the good we’re doing in Government, but we really are tempering the Tories. It’s always frustrating to see a right wing Government, and that’s why we couldn’t stand by and let them rule alone.

Comment by Rob Spence

Georgina – you didn’t have to stand by and let them rule – you could have had a coalition with Labour.

Comment by Roland Dunn

100% agree with you Bruce.

Sorry to jump onto your comments Bruce and bring a debate into your comments, but Georgina, really, your argument is pathetic: “we couldn’t stand by and let them rule alone”. What, seriously, you went into government to stop the Tories ruling with unfettered power alone (where they would have only had a minority government)? Make a bit of a better effort to be honest at least.

By supporting and propping up this vile tea-party-esque government you have been completely complicit (a fine example of where you have been more than simply passive is in your support is the gross Health and Social Security bill that privatised the NHS, something that finally shredded any credibility Shirley Williams held onto).

If you truly are concerned, then collapse the government and force an election now.

Comment by Bruce

Vinny asked “Is there any immediate and decisive action we can take against this meddling with the internet?”. I had a meeting with my MP on Saturday; he’s persuaded that it’s a bad idea and we’ll campaign together. Have to work out the details, but because it’s being put through via threats to the ISPs without a Parliamentary debate, we’ll have to do it through press and social networking. Interested? More here and more TBA when we’ve worked out more details.

@Georgina – FWIW, I still vote Lib Dem, because they’re the least worst of the bunch. But, as others have pointed out, they are the ones who prop up the Tories rather than temper them. More on-topic: I note the joint promise “We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion” is completely reneged on.

Comment by Jon Rimmer

Reading the news about David Miranda was the first time I’ve ever felt the same sense of revulsion about my own country as I have reading about abuses in China, Russia, the USA, Iran, etc. There have been things in the UK I’ve passionately disagreed with, but this crosses the line into the kind of dystopian oppression I never thought I would see my supposedly democratic home country indulge in.

It’s also baffling to see conservative children-of-Thatcher like Louise Mensch cheering on the western recreation of the Stasi and the infallible authority of the state with an enthusiasm that would make Joseph Stalin blush. It’s as if the right-wing has become so obsessed with competing with China that they want to replicate every aspect of it, even the endemic corruption that results from mass surveillance and journalistic repression making it impossible to safely and investigate and report political wrongdoing.

The near future for western nations probably resembles Eastern Europe and the rise of the autocratic democratic strongmen that the Guardian recently profiled. They’ll gain power promising relief from economic malaise, a restoration of national pride, immigration control, etc., and will quickly set about repurposing the security infrastructure they inherit from their predecessors for the repression of any effective political opposition. In the UK, this could be a Labour or Tory politician, it scarcely matters. Both parties make a show of preaching anti-authoritarianism in opposition, but once in power they quickly revert to the opposite.

It’s distressing to realise that the computer technology we spend our lives improving is a central part of how these kind of modern police states are able to so effectively surveil and and repress their citizens. But the silver lining is that, as shown in the Arab Spring, it can also be used to undermine it as well. Unfortunately, revolutions that happen in the streets rarely produce happy outcomes, whether protesters win or lose, as Egypt sadly demonstrates. In countries like the UK, the best hope for producing positive change is still the democratic process. Its mechanisms may have been weakened and subverted, but they are not yet gone; they simply need to be taken advantage of.

In the past, to be effective, political movements had to centralise around parties and leadership cliques that inevitably tended towards corruption and authoritarianism. Technology and the internet provide the possibility of building popular movements that are not beholden to business interests for funding or dominated by a public-school elite. We have online tools already that provide accountability and petitioning of democratic institutions, but we need to go further: To build tools for collaboration, fundraising and campaigning that cancel out the benefits of incumbency enjoyed by the dominant political parties. I don’t know what those tools will look like, but I hold out hope that we will get them before it’s too late.

Comment by Lynn Holdsworth

The freedom of speech and expression we used to be so proud of has been eroded to the point where even the BBC is cowering away from reporting this dictatorship in the making. But if we rely on the democratic process, who the hell is there to vote for that will effect the substantial turn-around we need? How many of us used our LibDem vote as a backlash against the increasingly rich, right-wing Labour Government in power before the last election and the fear of an equally right-wing Tory one? And look where that got us. I think that something like Left Unity is our only hope.

Comment by Chris Hunt

I entirely agree with your views on the shocking nature of this case vis-a-vis our declining civil liberties, but there’s one angle that nobody seems to be covering:

Somebody high up in our intelligence service must have authorised the detention and interrogation of Mr Miranda. In doing so, this individual (no doubt highly paid at our expense) showed a truly colossal lack of intelligence. How could they not forsee the mass of negative publicity they’d get for doing this? The outrage across the political spectrum?

Furthermore, apparently they’ve been round to the Guardian and forced them to destroy some hard drives with allegedly secret documents on them. Obviously, the Graun has already copied the documents across to somewhere safely outside British jurisdiction, but that doesn’t matter to our protectors. Haven’t the security services got more important things to do? Like catching proper terrorists, for example?

Comment by Jon Rimmer

@Lynn – The problem with parties like Left Unity is the same with all current “alternative” parties, they swing too far to the left or to the right of political spectrum, with the result that they alienate too many ordinary voters on issues like the economy, welfare, immigration, etc. Also, their memberships are too taken up with the navel-gazing drama and intrigue of their particular movements. I have a friend who is active in hard-left politics, and the stories he tells me often beggar belief. There is no way I would want any of them involved in government.

Any successful movement to upset the ensconced democratic parties within the UK would need to be centrist. Which in the UK means socially democratic, but slightly to the right of other western European countries. Not because the necessarily that’s the ideal political position, but it is one that can attract the broadest support from across the political spectrum. Its central campaigning point should be its lack of extremism, and the message that it is the incumbent parties that are extremists. Secret, mass surveillance of the entire population is an extremist policy. The erosion of civil liberties and the harassment of journalists is an extremist policy. The prostration of democratic principles and the imposition of austerity for the benefit of the super-rich is an extremist policy. The UK needs to get the crazy people out of government.

Comment by Lynn Holdsworth

I don’t suppose anyone, including parties like LeftUnity themselves, would expect them to win an election any time soon. But realistic support for a left-wing party might just send the oh so obvious message to Labour that they need to slide over to the left, and let us see some ordinary people in the shadow cabinet, for them to be a credible alternative rather than the neo-Tories that its ex-voters believe them to be.

Comment by Richard Caldwell

I think the ongoing ping-pong game of the parties means that all share the blame. And not to sound too tinfoil hat, but I really feel that any form of government that would allow for this potentiality is not at all worth holding onto. If Parliament wants to mimic the states, then laws can and will be retroactively rewritten in its own favour, in which case fighting fire with fire is ultimately useless. This is a mass grievance which cannot be righted through legislation. The entire playing field must be dropped altogether. Our governments are not spring chickens. If any one party had true intentions of bettering the world then they have already had a world of chances.

I’m still eager to hear of copyright activists speaking out on all of the surveillance issues. One would hope that ownership regarding our own private IP is in question, then those who have been safeguarding IP in creative sphere would have the best experience in dealing with such greed.

Still, I do believe the best and only really first step is in boycotting the American tech companies completely, which would suggest the greater aim of an anti-Capitalism agenda. In today’s world money and power are particularly synonymous, so you cannot confront the one without also confronting the other in the doing. (As Bruce mentioned in his next to last paragraph.)

Comment by Lynn Holdsworth

Richard, it would be hard to disagree with anything you say here (well, the parts I understood, anyway), but how does this translate into actions that you and I can take to do our bit towards stamping out authoritarianism? Stop buying iPhones? How will that help? And where can I buy a tinfoil hat? 🙂

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