Britain’s Orwellian Nightmare?

As a British citizen, I find Britain’s recent authoritarian creep to be deeply unsettling. First we greatly diluted our ancient rights of habaeas corpus. Then we created the world’s largest video surveillance network (which of course was completely powerless to prevent last summer’s riots).

Now we have started locking people up for comments on Twitter.

From Brendan O’Neill:

If you thought it was only authoritarian states like China or Iran that imprisoned pesky bloggers and tweeters, think again.

This week, Britain became a fully paid-up member of that clique of illiberal intolerant, tweeter-harassing states.

On Tuesday, at Swansea Magistrates Court in Wales, Liam Stacey, a student, was imprisoned for 56 days for writing offensive tweets.

Fifty-six days. Two months. In an actual jail. For tweeting. It needs to be spelt out like that in order to show how shocking it is that in the 21st century, in a nation that gave us such great warriors for freedom as The Levellers and John Stuart Mill, a young man has now been banged up for expressing his thoughts.

Stacey’s thoughts were far from pleasant ones. In fact they were offensive and repugnant.

On March 17, Fabrice Muamba, a 23-year-old black football player for Bolton Wanderers, collapsed with cardiac arrest during a match against Tottenham Hotspurs. Many people were shocked, and before long a #PrayforMuamba hashtag took off on Twitter.

But Stacey, who claimed he was drunk at the time, didn’t fancy praying for Muamba, and so instead he tweeted:

“LOL. Fuck Muamba. He’s dead.”

(Muamba did not die, though he remains critically ill in a London hospital.)

56 days in prison? For expressing a distasteful opinion? Frankly, I find the notion of convicting someone of such an offense more offensive than Stacey’s words.

Most recently, Parliament is enacting a law to allow for the monitoring and recording — in real time — of all online activity (presumably including my work) by GCHQ.

From the BBC:

The Home Office has said laws allowing the monitoring all emails, texts and web use in the UK will be brought in “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

Home Secretary Theresa May says “ordinary people” will have nothing to fear- but there is opposition to the idea from all sides of the House of Commons.

All of this is troubling. Throwing people in jail for expressing unpopular opinions? That seems un-British, and seems to not tally with the idea that we should live and let live. I don’t have a problem with criminalising speech that is an incitement to imminent violence (e.g. “kill that man”). But criminalising opinion? Not only is that paternalistic, that’s a sticky slope to thought crime. And why is that a problem? In a society where we are not free to express any opinion we like — even deeply unpopular ones — innovation is surely stifled. Innovators and freethinkers are forced to think tricky questions (“will I be jailed for expressing this opinion?”) before they publicise their ideas.

And why would GCHQ need to monitor the entire internet? If they need to gather evidence to prevent imminent criminality, why not get a warrant, and monitor a suspect? The fact that they are writing a law that acts as a warrant on all of us suggests that contrary to the Home Office’s statements, we are now all suspects.

Britain has a rather unique legal and political system. Nothing is really set in stone other than the supremacy of the sovereign — in other words, the Queen. Right now, sovereignty has been delegated to Parliament, and the Queen retains only a ceremonial role. But because the Parliament is sovereign, it is free to pass any law it wishes. No rights are absolute, no system is set in stone. There is no first amendment guarantee to free speech. And even though Britain is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, that piece of legislation is phrased so that governments can curtail rights for the “greater good”.

Some legal flexibility can be good. British society has been remarkably free and remarkably stable, certainly in contrast to many other nations. But let’s be honest: authoritarianism can blight any nation. We shouldn’t be complacent to that threat.

And the overarching and striking problem with this authoritarian creep is mostly that it is a waste of money. As I wrote last week terrorism and civil disorder and the expression of unpopular opinions (and all of the things that this authoritarianism is supposed to quell) is of minimal threat to the West (and of course the expression of unpopular opinions is largely beneficial). More people are killed by being crushed by furniture than by terrorism. While trillions are spent on homeland security and the “liberation” of foreign lands, domestic infrastructure is neglected, and businesses and workers lose out as they pay in taxes for the expenses of large authoritarian interventionist government. CCTV has little effect on crime.

And certainly, the social effects of authoritarian creep may be huge. How many legitimate criticisms of the government will go unpublished due to fear of censorship or monitoring? How many people will spend time in jail — and face life with a criminal record — just for expressing an opinion? How many innocent people will spend time in jail as a result of monitoring mistakes or misinterpretations? How many good businesses and ideas will not receive funding due to productive capital being redirected to the government coffers to pay for authoritarian interventionism? How many people will waste their productivity working as government snoops when instead they could be deploying their minds and skills in creating valuable products and services that would improve our economy?

But above all, what would George Orwell think? Big brother is watching and recording us all. Every time we go online, we display our thoughts, our interests, our desires, our curiosities, our sexual preferences, our politics. All of these things are recorded by the state — a state which seems to have no problem with locking people up for expressing unpopular opinions.

Orwell understood that that was a peril to everything — our homes, our lives, our rights, our society, our economy and the very fabric of our existence.

32 thoughts on “Britain’s Orwellian Nightmare?

  1. This legislation may be blowback from the Riots. I don’t follow British law but I would be interested in hearing the debates in Parliament.

    The problem with Twitter and Facebook etc, is that Children/Simpleminded can bully without any thought of consequenses. Riots can spread. Instead of Riots to support social justice, riots are based on greed and violence. “Hey let’s go shopping ;)”

    However like all Legislation Mi5 will put their nose in and slip a few lines, that will greatly increase their Bureau Chiefs power and authority. The Queen will willingly give Royal assent, because she will be advised that it is in her interest.

    Any Tweets with the line “Off with their heads” will be flagged and perpetrators jailed.

    At least the British know their history. I give them that.

  2. Wow. I’d take my leave and GTFO of the UK if I were a citizen there. Oh wait, I don’t know where you could go. In the US, with all those precious amendments, we can still be strip searched for being a passenger in a speeding car if the police computers don’t properly reflect our payment of a fine.
    Maybe it’s time to go to a more open society… like China or Iran.

    • Australia. My Uncle and Cousin are Cops. The culture of Australian Polioce is pretty laid back. They only shoot you in the head (Well trained) if you are really really out of control. Otherwise they say chill out and go home and watch some TV.

  3. If Citizens of the World are concerned about the above and want to migrate to Australia. I suggest brushing up on the Citizen Test. See the site above and click on relevant links. example

    22. What is someone more likely to die of:
    a) Red Back Spider
    b) Great White Shark
    c) Victorian Police Officer
    d) King Brown Snake
    e) Your missus after a big night
    f) Dropbear?

    Sorry for the flippant comedy. I don’t know whther to laugh or cry about the above issues. Sometimes one prefers to bury their head in the sand. If ignorance is Bliss, and Australia is the best place in the world to live, then being a Bogan is nirvana.

      • Aziz, you are correct !

        41 snakebite deaths since 1980 in Australia. The brown snake is believed to have been involved in 24 of those deaths

        Great White since 1980 = 17

        Between 1980 and 1995, members of Victoria Police shot and killed 35 people, twice as many people as police forces in all other Australian jurisdictions combined.

        Redbacks: An antivenom was introduced in 1955 and no deaths attributed to treated redback spider bites have been reported since. Prior to this, at least 14 fatalities had occurred.
        The first Australian woman to be sentenced to a natural life term without parole, Katherine Knight, had a history of violence in relationships. She mashed the dentures of one of her ex-husbands and slashed the throat of another husband’s eight-week-old puppy before his eyes. A heated relationship with John Charles Thomas Price became public knowledge with an Apprehended Violence Order that Price had filed against Knight. She stabbed Mr Price 37 times with a butcher’s knife before skinning him and hanging his hide from a meat hook in their lounge room back in 2000. She then decapitated him and put his head in a pot on the stove, baked flesh from his buttocks and cooked vegetables and gravy as side dishes to serve to Mr Price’s children. Police found the macabre dinner before the adult children arrived home.

  4. Thanks…we inherited that crap from you guys…couldn’t you keep that on your side of the pond? *grin*

  5. The Home Office has said laws allowing the monitoring all emails, texts and web use in the UK will be brought in “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

    Home Secretary Theresa May says “ordinary people” will have nothing to fear- but there is opposition to the idea from all sides of the House of Commons.

    Can you say Carnivore and Echelon?

  6. According to Krugman, more prisoners and prisons stimulate the economy.

    Gosh, making fun of that guy never gets old.

    On the more serious side, I have always been much more fascinated by Germany during the 1920’s rather then Germany under the Nazi regime. The Nazi regime gets all the press these days, (for the obvious reasons), but Germany, during the Weimar Republics was a fascinating time. Besides the famous hyperinflation, Germany during the 1920’s saw an explosion in the arts, philosophies, sex and the cinema. A formly staid and boring culture became the vibrant and teeming with seemling endless possibilities. (I would be remiss to point out that it was far from a perfect time and place)

    The parallels, between the western culture today and that of 1920’s Germany become more aligned everyday.

    It is my one and great hope that the arch of today’s western culture does not follow the path of the German history. But, sadly, I am planning for the worst outcomes. History does tend to repeat itself.

    PS Just began planting my summer garden. I have 100’s of plants grown from seed that I will not be able to use due to space limitations. I hand these extras out to friends and family. I don’t tell them that food prices will going through th roof one day or the hyperinflation will force most of us to eat at a lower standard then we are accustomed to. No, I tell them, “Gardening is fun!”

  7. It’s great that you have the foresight and the courage to call this out for what it is, or, rather, the potential for what it may become. Regardless of the asshole’s comments about Muamba, he should not have to fear a prison cell for expressing his crude thoughts on twitter, of all places! Any Government that tries to convince the citizenry that nasty opinions (with no intent of a direct threat) need to be curtailed, is, indeed, one to be weary of. They will take a mile if you give them an inch on matters like these, and next thing you know the compassionate citizens who thought they were preventing morons from being nasty find themselves staring in the face of prison bars when they start to rethink the “war on terror” or other governmental overreaches. Bravo, Aziz! We must stand up for unpopular opinions, no matter how much we disagree!

    • We live in a country where you can be locked up for expressing your opinion. If that’s not enough to galvanise ferocious criticism I don’t know what is. Locking people up for expressing their opinion is the first and most important sign of tyranny. David Cameron should be embarrassed that his government is presiding over this.

      Sadly, the dazzling hypnotic lights of Britain’s Got Talent, X-Factor, and junk food are keeping the people comfortably numb…

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  9. Hi Aziz,

    thanks for another very interesting post, I agree with a lot of what you said but could you say where you obtained the information on your line:

    “More people are killed by being crushed by furniture than by terrorism.” ?

    On another off topic question if you don’t mind, what are your thoughts on the drops in Silver and gold currently, is the bull market in these two over or is it merely a consolidation in your opinion?



    • Source on crushed by furniture:

      Gold and silver? I don’t buy gold and silver to “hedge against inflation” (i.e. buy QE, sell no QE), which is what most market participants do. Gold’s real value is insurance against systemic counter-party risk. As levels of systemic risk continue to rise (i.e. as more derivatives are created) so does gold’s implicit value.

      In other words, this is a good opportunity to pick up gold and silver pretty cheaply.

  10. Thanks for that, it really is incredible the numbers of accidents and deaths around the home, a friend of mine was paralyzed in a car accident and had to spend a long time on an excellent spinal injuries ward, on the numerous visits I made to see him he would tell me the accidents various patients had. It really was very sobering and left me with the thoughts but for the grace of god (not that i’m religious)! The most innocuous one that sticks in my mind was that of a bloke who was bending over to light his gas fire, he lost his balance and ended up paralyzed.

    I think the clamp down on civil liberties is about a few things, the continuing surveillance with the ‘war on terror’, the ongoing decent into a depression and the worries of more war, the social and political upheavals undoubtedly to come and the increase of far right sentiment. I entirely agree with the concern over it and follow it all with in an insatiable curiosity for a greater understanding of all that is happening, as has been said many times we do live in interesting if worrying times. I must admit to having been very depressed and frightened at times by recent events, but my curious mind always wants to achieve greater understanding of these things. I thank you for your excellent blog and sharing your thoughts and insights. By the way what area of work are you involved with if you don’t mind me asking?


  11. Quite frankly, I may go to jail for writing this, but Why do we have a queen in the first place?

    Ceremonial role? If that is the case, formalize the “ceremonial role” in hard law. As it stands now, the fact that the queen owns ALL PROPERTY, AND ALL LABOUR OF HER SUBJECTS IN AUSTRALIA, CANADA, UK really makes me feel small… very small…

    I laugh when I hear people talk of democracy. Odd thing is, if we were in a real democracy, we wouldn’t have income taxes – after all, the ignorant masses would have done away with them.

    We think we have a choice and a vote, and we think we are free. But when push comes to shove, you are a subject of the queen, and the queen can allow anything to be done to you or your family or your belongings.

    • I think it is important to qualify that the sovereign’s role is not technically ceremonial, and that “democracy” is conditional on their assent.

      At the same time, I think it is important to note that the present Queen has been a relatively good one: committed to staying out of politics, and submissive to Parliament. I find this unsurprising; she was reared in the shadow of dead Romanov princes and princesses. She also committed herself to paying taxes, which is definitely a step toward a purely ceremonial role. The next King fancies himself an activist, and has widely known political views (while I agree with some, I fiercely disagree with some others). Frankly, I think the prospect of an activist King may ultimately do Britain a lot of good, as we may finally formalise the Monarch’s role as purely ceremonial. While a majority of people in this land consider themselves Monarchists, I think the reality of a political King will scare a lot more people toward republicanism.

      • Hah, I’d like to add that the present state of the US would also scare the ex monarchists away from republicanism – so what is one to do?

        As far as the Queen paying taxes, that is a complete joke to me. Canada just announced in its new budget that it will force the governor general (the Queen’s representative here) to pay taxes. Of course, the budget also increased its salary so that the net effect is the same with or without taxes – so what was the point? All taxes paid by public servants is a joke, as it is paid back to government … minus a percentage for the tax deparment, and whoever writes the cheques.

        IE: you tax the productive segment of society (private sector), you take this money and pay public servants (government) who then pay taxes on their salaries, which is then re-distributed back to government. What a joke, the only winner is the tax department, and the net effect is that the private worker had to be taxed more in the first place.

        Seems to me like a very inneficient way to proceed. Why not pay the public servants less, not charge them taxes, and save on all the expenses of having to tax them?

        The queen is the same – she derives her income from taxes (I don’t see her working for her meals, do you?). so why not simply pay her less (her taking less from us) and waive the ridiculous income tax on her salary? We would all somehow have more in our pockets.

        my 2 cents.

        • Heh.

          I would rather be me than the Queen. All those engagements… it seems like a gilded cage, and the kindest and most just thing I think would be to abolish the monarchy. Then again there are huge problems with determining what to replace it with. It should not, in my view, be a political office, and anyone who were to fill would be a politician. We need to have reform (at the very least codifying the reality that Parliament and the judiciary is sovereign and that the Monarch is purely a ceremonial figurehead) but it seems difficult to envisage circumstances where we could go beyond that.

      • “I think it is important to qualify that the sovereign’s role is not technically ceremonial, and that “democracy” is conditional on their assent.”

        Yes that was my entire point. People run around shouting “We have a democracy!” simply because their sovereign and lord simply decided not to break their arms and steal their property.

        • In Australia I was brought up as a Republican and Anti Monarchist. But I have renewed respect for the Monarchy. Especially when her Highness rebuked blair for being so Populist with the tabloid fuelled over emotion of Dianna’s death. She has excercised great judgement. I also loved the moment when Obama felt humbled and kowtowed in her company, even with Airforce One and associted Secret Service in tow. That is real power.

          A benevolent Monarchy is the best system. The Illuminati can serve them with “information” services. The masses have no interest in Politics. They just want their MTV.

  12. The British population has been so dummed down no one cares, on Internet comments the dumb crass authoritarian ‘kill them’, ‘lock em up and throw away the key’ type opinions seem to dominate. I think cyber activists are employed by governments. The British Monarchy has been a failure, the Queen should be stopping the politicians from spying on us for our own protection.

  13. Alberta, my province in Canada, has this act

    If you were to read it, you would realize that it allows a group of unelected people to declare martial law – where you have no right to your property, you can be deported, and you can be conscripted forcibly.

    When I bring this up with anyone, they say “naw that would never happen”. Well then, if it won’t ever happen, why have it codified as law?

    People don’t care, and I am more and more convinced that people DO NOT want to rule themselves and actually want and appreciate a government that controls more and more of their lives, and makes more and decisions for them.

    • Stumbled on this today

      with regards to “smart meters” being installed in north america (and I would guess the UK + AUS as well).

      see the following snipet:

      “And security is not the only technologically-based obstacle faced by smart grid proponents. In March, alarm bells were rung following current CIA Director David Patraeus’ confirmation that governments will use wireless smart appliances to spy on citizens. “Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters,” Patraeus said at a meeting of In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm. He added that this will prompt a rethink of “our notions of identity and secrecy.”

      Aziz, you have more reach than me, and this is an issue that has to be brought up

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