“As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man,
There are only four things certain, since Social Progress began,
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fools bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire.”
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Gods of the Copybook Headings’
In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton asserts that it may be in the dying days of a democracy that tyranny tightens its icy grip on the heart of a people. Or, to put it another way, democracy may precede tyranny. In this case, the vigilance of the democracy is its only defence against the ever-present threat of ‘progression’ into tyranny. This rather goes against the commonly held notion that we are sitting comfortably at the apex of history, that our present civilisation is the natural progression from the barbarism of previous centuries and that nothing whatsoever can halt this relentless march.
Indeed, it is a notable feature of our times that even as we become increasingly dogmatic in our public (and in some cases, private) discourse about such fragile concepts as ‘freedom’ and the inviolate nature of the individual, we appear to have abandoned any attempt to defend them. In the Britain, matters are seemingly coming to a head under the authoritarian and narrow-minded Home Secretary Theresa May. Recent years have seen a number of troubling developments. Firstly, as a broad point, we have the increasing use of the term ‘extremism’ in public discourse in Britain, most often used as a term of opprobrium in order to close down any debate. The word extremism has no use whatever in terms of ascribing value to an argument; it is equivalent to the hostess of a dinner party insisting that her guests do not discuss politics, religion or money because ‘it simply isn’t done, dear’. The word ‘extremism’ is a mercurial concept and if accepted as a legal definition it has a great latent potential to cause immense harm to freedom of speech and consequently all other freedoms that subjects of the Queen enjoy. It is becoming clear that ‘extremism’ can mean practically whatever the state wants it to.
Take for example the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015. This Act was hailed as a great tool for the state to fight terrorism and ‘extremism’. Yet it contains clauses making it incumbent upon institutions ranging from nurseries(!) to universities to monitor, vet and control events and speaking engagements, having a ‘responsibility to exclude those promoting extremist views that support or are conducive to terrorism’. The use of the word ‘conducive’ is instructive here; a very loose term, indeed, one that might include practically anyone that doesn’t toe the Politically Correct line. ‘British Values’ will also be promoted by these institutions, being described as ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty’; the irony is bittersweet. The Act also lists protected characteristics that must not be infringed upon including: ‘disability, gender reassignment, race, sex and sexual orientation’. It further mentions steps to be taken by the institutions such as having people in the audience to ‘monitor debates’ and ‘excluding certain speakers’. This would be bad enough if the right-on student groups at university weren’t already becoming illiberal and tyrannical, what with the plethora of ‘trigger warnings’, events excluding ‘cisgender’ students (i.e, not mentally disturbed) and even the banning of certain publications as in the case of Aberystwyth University Student Union’s removal of the Daily Express from its campus shop due to its potentially ‘offensive’ content.
One must also view with distress the rise of the ‘National Crime Agency’ in the UK. Even before the Bill to found the agency had passed through parliament, the government had begun hiring the managers of the new organisation, an example of the surety and arrogance of the political class. But it is in the details of the NCA’s structure and relationship to power that it shows its true colours. For example,the Director-General of the organisation has the power to control Chief Constables from across the country and answers directly to the Home Secretary. This means a police force entirely under political control. Not only this, but the individual officers of this ‘British FBI’ are civil servants and are therefore bound to follow the diktats of individual politicians. Not exactly what Sir Robert Peel had in mind when he founded the police force in 1829. Peel envisaged a network of local forces outside of direct political authority, recognising that such a force under the auspices of government would be a terrible tool of oppression. To this day, Police Officers swear an oath to uphold the law and can refuse what they see as an unlawful breach of powers. But this is not true of the NCA.
Add to all this the increasing use of surveillance powers by local councils and the much-discussed and widespread nature of static surveillance (CCTV etc.) and you have a strong case for saying that the civil liberties of the British people are under grave threat. Sir Edward Coke once said “A man’s house is his castle – et domus sua cuique tutissimum refugiam”* but this no longer bears up to scrutiny; the powers of the state have grown too large for any such parochial definition of liberty. There are a long list of organisations that can simply barge into your home uninvited.
So, in the UK we have both structural/institutional changes which are negating the liberties of the subject and we also have the ‘polite tyranny’ as Charlton Heston called it, of Political Correctness. But this is true in much of Europe and in North America as well. Indeed, the uncovering of widespread surveillance by the NSA under powers given them by the Homeland Security Act of 2002, should come as no surprise to those following such trends in our crumbling civilisation. Nor indeed should the extensive US spying on her European allies, or detention without trial in the UK or practically any other plank of the ‘counter-terrorism’ operation that you care to mention.
All of this is also occurring within a wider context of democratic decline. Participation isn’t what it used to be. In the UK, it has become something of a cliché to note that membership of political parties has fallen far, far below that of the RSPB for instance. This has a worrying effect. It may be true that this is a wider symptom of the 21st Century’s prevalent phobia of commitment and that people still at least vote, but this is only partly relevant. Participation has dropped significantly over previous decades and the so has its inherent quality: participation is now entirely reactive; reactive to the agenda of the media moguls and the political class. The reason why the Labour Party and especially the Conservative Party are dying in terms of relevance, why there is this desperate battle over the centre ground (and therefore very little real difference between the main parties), is because of a lack of membership. All the conferences of the main parties are attended by a mixture of rich donors, lobbyists and selected journalists. Hardly any of the audiences are made up of the average voter and so they become echo chambers divorced from the reality of British life and without any true passion save the passion for office at any cost. The political class wouldn’t know a peoples movement (which is what both main parties were to a certain extent) if it came and hit them on the nose. Every election therefore, you do not have legions of passionate, well-informed and agenda setting members of political parties voting, instead you have a vast sea of changeable and easily manipulated voters.
The General Election of 2015 is a prime example of this; the Conservatives narrowly won the election not because of any great confidence or belief in them but simply because they were ‘better than the alternative’ and because they, in cahoots with their friends in the Press, had whipped up a climate of fear encouraging a snap decision from the individual elector based not on the past record of the parties on offer (it would be dubious if any of them deserved a vote in this case) but on a message force-fed to them by a sensationalist and ubiquitous media.
Modern democracy has slipped into decrepitude and the basic liberties which underpin a free society are under threat. Yet, distracted by the numerous options for entertainment and supposed ‘fulfilment’, todays citizens are seemingly without a care for the society, culture and liberties that their ancestors worked tirelessly to build. No-one appears willing or able to address this decline. We may be sleepwalking in to tyranny.
*et domus sua cuique tutissimum refugiam – “Every man’s house is his safest refuge.”