First they came for the terrorists…
... and I said nothing, because I was not a terrorist.
Over the last few years Britain has been undergoing changes which are consistent with a slide into authoritarian rule. This is not to say that Britain has become an authoritarian or fascist regime, or even to say that it is comparable to one. This distinction is apparently too subtle for the home secretary to grasp. In his recent attempt to defend the government's civil liberties record in the Guardian, he wrote:
So some commentators routinely use language such as "police state", "fascist", "creeping authoritarianism", while words such as "holocaust", "gulag" and "apartheid" are used descriptively in ways that must be truly offensive to those who experienced those realities.
Making this distinction leads us to an interesting and – I think – pressing long term question. Where do we draw the line? At what point do the actions of the government become so extreme that it is no longer possible to protest within the system? Undoubtedly we haven't yet reached that point. Substantial democratic avenues of resistance still exist and must be exploited. These include legal forms of protest; disruptive behaviour (such as the no2id renew for freedom campaign); consciousness-raising campaigns; etc.
If the trend continues then at some point these legal, democratic forms of resistance will cease to work. It is by no means a certainty that this point will be reached, but it is a possibility that is worth thinking about because it is not as outlandish as it seems at first sight.
Firstly, we do not live in a fully free and democratic society, so it is possible that the pressure that can be brought to bear through legal and democratic means could be insufficient to withstand the pressure that the state can bring to bear. There are a number of facets to this including but not limited to the fact that access to various forms of media is undemocratic and largely based on wealth or influence. It would also be interesting to know to what extent the secret services would play a role. To mention the secret services is often seen as tantamount to conspiracy theorising, but that is not the case. It is, I believe, not widely disputed that the security services have in the past played a reactionary political role; spying on, infiltrating and disrupting political groups such as the communists, the anarchists and the Labour party (the old one that was seen as a threat to the established order, not the new one). Indeed, it is likely that they even went so far as to spy on Harold Wilson (the Labour PM). Given that they did these things in the past it isn't too far fetched to imagine that they are doing something similar now. Again, to say this is not to say that Britain is equivalent to a fascist state with a secret police by any means. I merely wish to point out that within our still broadly democratic society there are strong antidemocratic forces whose effect cannot be ignored.
Secondly, it is possible that an authoritarian takeover of a democratic society could be implemented legally. The case of the creation of Apartheid in South Africa is instructive. The following paragraph is from the Wikipedia article on Apartheid:.
J.G. Strijdom, who succeeded Malan as Prime Minister, moved to strip coloureds and blacks of what few voting rights they had. The previous government had first introduced the Separate Representation of Voters Bill in parliament in 1951. However, its validity was challenged by a group of four voters, who were supported by the United Party. The Cape Supreme Court upheld the act, but the Appeal Court upheld the appeal and found the act to be invalid. This was because a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament was needed in order to change the entrenched clauses of the Constitution. The government then introduced the High Court of Parliament Bill, which gave parliament the power to overrule decisions of the court. This too was declared invalid by both the Cape Supreme Court and the Appeal Court. In 1955 the Strijdom government increased the number of judges in the Appeal Court from five to eleven, and appointed pro-Nationalist judges to fill the new places. In the same year they introduced the Senate Act, which increased the senate from 49 seats to 89. Adjustments were made such that the NP controlled 77 of these seats. Finally, in a joint sitting of parliament, the Separate Representation of Voters act was passed in 1956, which removed coloureds from the common voters' roll in the Cape, and established a separate voters' roll for them.
When the 'law' becomes so morally bankrupt and reprehensible, it becomes the duty of the citizen to resist it, not to obey it.
As I said before, we haven't yet reached this point, but we need to think about two things: how do we know when we have reached this point? and what are the acceptable forms of illegal resistance? The no2id campaign lies on the boundary between legality and illegality; it clearly contradicts the spirit of the law if not the letter.
I haven't yet reached a position on these questions, and I would be interested in debate and opinions. I can imagine that some might argue that certain forms of illegal protest are already justified. For example, protesting outside parliament without written permission (which is now illegal). But I doubt that anyone but some very diehard revolutionists would argue that armed insurrection is justified. I suspect that a complete exploration of these issues would require an understanding of the nature of collaboration. Why do ostensibly good people go along with things they know are wrong? What can be done about it? A simple question along these lines which continually perplexes me is: why does the Labour party go along with what Tony Blair wants even though he is quite clearly a Tory? (Tories, please don't be offended by this, I say this only for rhetorical effect.)
Some might respond that these are bourgeois political concerns to be worrying about, and that we would do much better to concentrate our energies on other political matters of global concern. There is some truth to this; large scale poverty around the world, the environment, political instability and oppressive regimes are all issues which are in some sense more important than British civil liberties. However, I think things have now got to the stage where the problem cannot be ignored. We cannot take our freedoms for granted.