The Guardian’s Jenni Russell points out that the attitude of British officialdom is changing subtly.
I find this change truly frightening because I spent the first few years of my life in apartheid South Africa. My parents were political activists, and we lived in an atmosphere of fear. My mother’s relations distanced themselves from her, fearing that they too would be targeted if they associated with us. My earliest memories are of police raiding the house at night, emptying out dolls’ cots and sweeping books off shelves. People would simply disappear. A black friend left our house to travel to his family in Zululand, and vanished.
After a month of inquiries, someone found a witness who had seen him being picked up by the police. He was being held without charge under the 90-days legislation – the same policy that the government is trying to introduce here. The relief when we came to England was incalculable. This country, these policemen and this government were benign, reasonable and trustworthy. As my father never ceased to point out, a Britain that had fought fascism had a deep-rooted commitment to protecting the individual from the state.
That is no longer true. ID cards are one danger, but there are other measures which are already a reality. [...]
I fear that many of us are failing to see the danger we are now in, precisely because we have grown up in a largely benign state. We still trust in the good sense and reasonableness of its agents, and the rest of officialdom.
However, I think she is wrong about the cause:
This change in the relationship between people and officials can only be explained as a result of the new illiberal atmosphere in which we are living.
That’s back to front. An illiberal attitude is insufficient for oppression or we would be living under the dictatorship of the Free Church of Scotland. It is actually about power. Unchecked power will be abused. Not may, will.
You cannot change the culture of the law – Blair minor – without affecting the culture of the land. British police were once famous for courtesy. But then as little as twenty years ago they had few powers not available to the ordinary citizen. They relied on voluntary cooperation for much of their authority, and the reasonable exercise of that authority yielded general cooperation.
Before the merger of the agencies, the Inland Revenue was proverbially gentlemanly and reasonable compared to HM Customs and Excise, though the taxation functions were very similar. The difference in culture wasn’t accidental. Customs had vastly greater powers and found it easier to rely on fear to do the job.
ASBO-land is a different place from England. And this is why: as they gain more capacity to order us about, those in office will order us about more. What else?
The PM implies he wishes us to ‘respect’ one another and social norms. He claims he has given powers to officials to make it so. But respec’ on the streets will mean something else. It will mean respec’ (in the sense of fawning obedience) towards the same officials who have the powers to make it so. And as we have ever fewer rights – perhaps not even existence – without their say-so, truculence, swagger and oppression by officials will become the norm.