4/03/2006

Britain's Slide into Totalitarianism

From Samizdata comes a frightening post about the creation of a new law-enforcement body in Britain that seems, quite literally, to be a secret police. Agents of the Serious Organized Crime Agency will not take the Police's customary oath of service to the Crown that mandates adherence to the rule of law; they are authorized to act out of uniform, anywhere in the world; the names of SOCA agents will be kept secret; the locations of SOCA offices in Britain will be kept secret; there is at present no address or email given for SOCA, and the only way that private citizens can contact them is through a P.O. box. (There is a phone number given, for media use only.)

SOCA agents can act without judicial warrants; they can deputize anyone else to act on their behalf. They can gain access to secured data from most government agencies, and are authorized to pass data on to whomever they choose. SOCA is exempt from Freedom of Information requirements, and answers to nobody except the Home Secretary.

Most worrying, perhaps, is that SOCA is ostensibly meant to fight not terrorism (which might perhaps justify such abridgments of standard checks and balances) but organized crime, while not being limited to same. Rather, it is authorized to enforce all laws as needed. In other words, the infrastructure is now in place for Britain's government to totally subvert the traditional police powers and ignore judicial restraint.

Tony Blair may be an ally of the United States in international matters, but he is not a good man. His government is steadily exerting control over more and more areas of private and public life in Britain. And he has the almost total cooperation of the leading opposition party, the Tories; the debate is not whether to erect a police state, but in what manner.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that the erosion of Britain's Bill of Rights began in earnest after the 1997 ban on handguns.

8 comments:

Machteacher said...

Hmmm... Let's see-- Warrantless surveillance, suspension of habeas corpus, thwarting Freedom of Information requirements, ignoring judicial restraint, government taking over public and private life, secret police and prisons... are you sure it's Britain you should be worried about? I mean, if you're opposed to this kind of thing, there's plenty you can do in the US, starting with voting for/financially supporting anyone opposed to Bush.

Mastiff said...

I see a large difference between listening in on conversations between terrorists and arresting people without warrants. If you do not, I don't know what to say.

Governments traditionally have access to greater powers in watime than in peacetime. This is expected, so long as those powers are given up again once the war ends. President Bush has (more or less) been careful to make many of his activities temporary, and placed them under periodic oversight. Blair, on the other hand, has made his power-grabs permanent. That is why I accept President Bush's actions (albeit with some hesitation) while I consider Blair's to be the precursor to a democratic dictatorship.

Machteacher said...

Um, how long was Jose Padilla held without charge? What about the people tortured to death at Gitmo? There's a lot more going on than warrantless surveillance.

As for the argument that these are temporary wartime powers, the "G-WOT" has already lasted longer than the civil war, or US involvement in WWII, if you count from 9-11. Not that terrorism has came anywhere near even a fraction as much of a threat to the US as those wars did. And Bush has already said the Iraq War will last until the end of the presidency, meaning he'll have "wartime" powers as long as he feels like. He certainly hasn't made any definition as to when the war against terrorism might end, if ever.

Also; obligatory Ben Franklin quote. You know the one.

Mastiff said...

Surely you mean, he will have wartime powers until January 21, 2009. Bush will be leaving office then, yes?

And compared to Lincoln, Wilson, or FDR, Bush has been remarkably limited in his use of wartime powers. That our discussion focuses on a handful of terrorists and the hazy edges of civil liberties law should demonstrate that. (Not that a true abuse of power is excused by only being a "small" abuse of power; but my point is that Bush is not abusing his powers at all.)

And the Ben Franklin quote referred to "giving up an essential liberty for temporary safety." I have trouble pointing to an "essential" liberty that has been given up. Most importantly, firearms rights are actually expanding in America, which is usually a good barometer of a strong citizenry.

In Britain, as I said, the people have been systematically disarmed, forbidden to defend themselves against violence, burdened with tax after tax after tax, placed under omnipresent surveillance, and now under the juristicion of a secret police. The signs are unmistakable.

Machteacher said...

>Surely you mean, he will have wartime powers until January 21, 2009. Bush will be leaving office then, yes?

It is to be fervently hoped for. However, by setting himself up as having these powers for his entire presidency, without any indication as to when he might give them up, he leaves these powers in place for the next president, who can feel free to keep them or expand them.

Also, Habeas Corpus and judicial review of detentions are about the most essential liberties any citizen can have from their government. Again, Lincoln and FDR were facing far, far greater threats to the nation than we are, and facing them far more effectively. (Wilson was a good example of abuse of wartime powers, and he had little respect for the rights of Americans, anyway).

Again, it seems quite ironic for you to point out that the people of Britain are being "placed under ominpresent surveillance" when you have absolutely no problem with warrantless surveillance in the US. And lumping in taxes with secret police shows that you're just not looking at what _really_ makes a police state.

Mastiff said...

Warrantless surveillance has only been carried out against a few thousand people at most, whereas everyone in Britain is constantly being recorded by video cameras. Their movements on the subway system are tracked, and soon RFID chips will be embedded in their cars as well. This is surveillance of a whole new magnitude.

And taxes have everything to do with a police state. A tax, by definition, makes the government more powerful and the people less. Hence more taxes lead to a citizenry that cedes power and societal initiative to the government.

How do you figure that there is no judicial review of detentions when detention cases have on several occasions gone all the way to the Supreme Court?

Lincoln and FDR were facing far, far greater threats to the nation than we are

Here is our main disagreement, I think. I believe that we are only at the beginning of a far greater conflict, one that Western society is profoundly ill-equipped to fight. Fighting this conflict will require the West to regain the moral assertiveness to do what needs to be done, even if it should be unpleasant. (Emphasis on what needs to be done, not what some demogogues would like to see done.)

Machteacher said...

Yeah, what's the big deal of a few thousand people having their privacy illegally invaded by the government compared to people being videotaped while they're in public?

Public videotaping cuts both ways, remember. It keeps an eye on citizens, but it also keeps an eye on the government. When the London police gunned down that Brazilian last summer, the Underground surveillance camera put the lie to every single statement the police initially made about the incident. And don't forget Rodney King. As long as public videotaping is truly public, and citizens have access to the tapes as well as authorities, I'm not sure I really have a problem with it.

I'm not buying your taxes=police state argument. Saudi Arabia and several other oil states have no income tax. Freest nations on Earth? You could say ANY law that is passed restricting anything gives more power to the government at the expense of the people. Prohibiting marijuana, prostitution, or gay marriage all give more power to the government. Are the Netherlands freer than the US?

There have been judicial reviews of the detentions, true, but the Bush Administration has fought them tooth-and-nail, insisting on their right to continue it, without having the guts to let the Supreme Court rule on it in the Padilla case. Bottom line; if you support Bush on this, you're against judicial review.

Finally, the idea that we are in a crisis similar to the Civil War or WWII is simply ludicrous. In the Civil War we were fighting huge battles on our own soil, and were facing the dissolution of our country. In WWII we fought two massive, genocidal empires simultaneously. Today, terrorism in the US killed far fewer people than drunk driving or homicide. So we chose to invade a small, third world nation, for reasons that proved to be false.

I almost hate to ask, but what exactly do you mean by "moral assertiveness" and "what needs to be done?"

Mastiff said...

Yeah, what's the big deal of a few thousand people having their privacy illegally invaded by the government compared to people being videotaped while they're in public?

Not illegally. That's the point; the wiretaps were within Bush's perogative.

As long as public videotaping is truly public, and citizens have access to the tapes as well as authorities, I'm not sure I really have a problem with it.

That would be more palatable. But I don't know whether British citizens indeed have access to the footage, without the acquiescence of government. I was very hard for them to say no in the subway case.

I'm not buying your taxes=police state argument. Saudi Arabia and several other oil states have no income tax.

It's not the income taxes, per se, but the ratio of government budgets to private affluence. As you say, those governments get their money from oil.

You could say ANY law that is passed restricting anything gives more power to the government at the expense of the people.

Granted. Which is why every law should be scrutinized to see whether it is worth the price. I tend to think that criminalizing marijuana (for example) has done us a great deal of harm, not least because of the pretext the government has to undermine the Fourth Amendment.

But your larger point, that some government activity is necessary, is valid. But too much leads to totalitarianism. Governments only have two fundamental domestic tools: to take and spend money, and to criminalize behavior. Left unchecked, governments will make criminals out of us all. Hyperbole? Do you know if your taxes were filed correctly? H&R Block sure didn't!

Bottom line; if you support Bush on this, you're against judicial review.

False dichotomy. I believe that Bush legitimately has the powers he is exercising, but proper oversight is always a good thing.

In WWII we fought two massive, genocidal empires simultaneously. Today, terrorism in the US killed far fewer people than drunk driving or homicide.

Today, yes. But the issue is not terrorism; the issue is Salafi jihadism, the religious ideology that demands that its followers spread Islam by the sword. This is the long war. And we have only just begun. Open religious conflict is presently restricted to Thailand, Bangladesh, and other weak nations. But it will spread.

I almost hate to ask, but what exactly do you mean by "moral assertiveness" and "what needs to be done?"

I mean, suppressing Salafi jihadism just as we would suppress any other organized group that called for mass murder. To do so, we will need to make a fundamental value judgement that runs counter to the intellectual trend of the past century: that we can judge between opposing religious beliefs, and declare one of them to be evil and the other one worth preserving.