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Another change of mood

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.

16 comments to Another change of mood

  • It is said that German Fascism didn’t start with Hitler but with Bismark’s creation of the German workers pensions system. Germans had grown accustom to the idea that the state should care for them a generation before Hitler showed up.

    Once you have enough of the population conditioned to the idea that government is the solution to any problem, the least amount of stress will set off a feedback loop of runaway power aggregation.

    People will reason, if government is wise and trustworthy enough to manage everyone’s healthcare, education, work, housing etc why isn’t wise and trustworthy enough to manage physical security?

  • Verity

    The two elements, The Guardian plus Jenni spelled without an e alerted me that this woman was a lefty with an agenda posing as a liberal thinker. I just knew that after the rational introduction, there was going to be a pitch for the left. They are so predictable.

  • guy herbert


    My purpose in quoting her was to point out that Guardian-reading lefties have started to notice. (But there’s nothing in her column that I find easy to disagree with, save the point I’ve already raised.)

    Interesting that the PM saw fit to respond to this trend (in typically hectoring, what-I-tell-you-three-times-is-true fashion) in today’s Observer, heavily implying that commentators such as Russell and Henry Porter have swallowed Tory propaganda, implicitly scoffing at them before vomiting more transparent lies:

    “There is a charge, crafted by parts of the right wing […] I accept the good faith of our critics.”

    It could not be plainer that he doesn’t.

  • Yes we know if Flashman starts to give us his spiel the very opposite is true,the cylinders need reboring.the clock has been turned back, the tyres are re-cuts and the vehicle was used in an off licence heist two weeks ago.
    As soon as Tony looks you in the eye and says “I’m a pretty straight kind of guy” it is a certainty he is lying through his teeth.
    The man was wasted a Prime Minister,he should have been a used car dealer.

  • simon

    I think the modern illiberality is partly caused by the need for status in an atomised society where nobody knows who you are or what you do. Many people now demand respect for the work they do and are intolerant of those who question their skills or expertise. Their job is increasingly the way these people convince themselves of their importance to society. When these people work for the government, a terrible state bossiness is the result.

  • Verity

    Ron Brick writes re Blair – The man was wasted a Prime Minister,he should have been a used car dealer.

    I don’t agree. I think he is more suited for the job for which I think Dave is also suited, that of a new car – Jaguar, say – salesman in the showroom of a big US city. Chicago or Dallas spring to mind. Tony and Dave. Two of a kind.

  • “Many people now demand respect for the work they do and are intolerant of those who question their skills or expertise”
    It would be more accurate to used the term “authority”.

  • Verity,
    There has to be some opportunity for him to put his thumb on the scales,new cars,but factory seconds.

  • Verity

    Ron Brick – I could go with that. Or perhaps a private, unadvertised “pre-used car” dealership with Blair & Cameron running it. Only luxury cars and only those driven for under 1,000 miles. (“Actually – I’m not supposed to tell you this – but the Rolls was Lord Luckaby’s third car and he thought driving it in London would make him too conspicuous – given his background in the Secret Service and all … well, you can understand … so he literally only took it out to village fêtes in England with Lady Helena Luckaby. So basically, it’s only been driven for around 300 miles …”.

    I can see either Blair or Dave saying those lines to close a used car deal.

  • Verity,
    There is a tale of an antique dealer who made a set of six chairs into a set of twelve,each chair having some genuine antique pieces.
    They were bought by someone called,shall we say your Lord Kuckaby?
    They were placed in the dining room,some time later,Luckaby called the estate carpenter to examine the chairs for some reason,and was promptly told of the legerdemain which had been practiced.
    Lord Luckaby called the dealer and insisted on a refund and the chairs were taken away.
    A few weeks later Lickaby was driving through the West End and happened to spy to chairs in the dealers window.on examining the sign he noted it said12 Chippendale chairs formerly in the collection of Lord Luckaby.
    That seem like our chaps?

  • veryretired

    There was a BBC show back in the 70’s or early 80’s called “Yes, Minister”, and a sequel called, “Yes, Prime Minister”, with Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey, the ultimate and indispensible civil servant.

    Everything that so bothers the commenters here was already present, and being satirized, decades ago.

    Once a bureaucracy becomes entrenched, its primary purpose quickly changes from its stated mission—law enforcement, court operations, pollution abatement, internal or external trade regulation, etc., etc.—to one overarching objective: expand the power, funding, staffing, and general influence of the agency and each of its minions.

    The problem in Britain, or the US, or any modern nation which has accepted the premises of the collectivist, statist, progressive vision of the all-inclusive, all-encompassing mission of the government and its organs is not attitude, but a fundamental perversion of the principle of delegation of power.

    The citizens of republican or parliamentary representative commonwealths believed they were allowing certain employees of theirs to take care of matters that they had been told were too complex for private remedy.

    That claim was a lie.

    Everything that has happened since the doctrine of the paternalistic, or maternalistic, (take youjr pick) state which would take care of these messy, complex problems that ordinary people just couldn’t understand or deal with was foisted on the unsuspecting public is a direct result of that malevolent falsehood.

    It is long past time to project into the public debate the very clear contrary principle—that any time there is an increase in the power of the state over the citizen, there is an decrease of the liberty necessary for the existence of a free citizen, and the security of freedom for his children.

  • Verity

    For all those twits who hate Singapore, “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” were show on SBC. And the Singaporeans got all the jokes. It was Lee Kuan Yew’s favourite TV show.

  • Dave

    Guy says “You cannot change the culture of the law – Blair minor – without affecting the culture of the land.”

    Yes thats true, I agree. But also:
    You can’t change the ‘people’ of this country – without affecting the culture of the land.

    New Labour are attacking the traditional culture of this country in many ways, some of which drive libertarians crazy but others ermm Not…. and you guys advocate more immigration…

  • mike

    “It is actually about power. Unchecked power will be abused. Not may, will.”

    Of course, but this effect is not limited to government – the pursuit of power is a basic human drive. You see it in sports. You see it in buisness. You see it on the roads. People like to become better (qua more powerful) at what they do. Sports, however, are entertaining, business creates wealth and driving is a necessary pleasure. Yet government is not any of these things.

    Great posting Guy.

  • I posted about this article on saturday, do try and keep up 😛
    On another note I hadn’t looked at it that way Guy, very good point.

  • Paul Marks

    A good posting.