Many have been saying it for years, but now it is official: Britain has become a surveillance society. According to the government's information commissioner, Richard Thomas, there are 4.2 million CCTV cameras in total or 1 for every 14 for men, women and children living in the UK. In addition, people's movements are recorded every step of the way, store loyalty cards build a profile of their shopping habits and their increasingly electronic communications are regularly intercepted and monitored.
The commissioner even went as far as referring to the fascist era in Spain under Franco and the communist experience in Eastern Europe. This is quite unprecedented and might well get him moved sideways soon since the Labour government tends not to accept criticism graciously. However, maintaining large files about everybody and encouraging citizens to spy on each other, just like the British government is no doing, did not save those totalitarian governments from their eventual collapse.
The police, who are already above the law in today's Britain and have recently been given even more unprecedented powers of arrest and interference, would tell us that all this surveillance is needed to protect law-abiding citizens from crime. To hammer the point they would reiterate the imminent threat from international terrorism. All this, however, is a mute point intent on covering up the gradual descent from a democratic society into a police state.
The numerous speed cameras bringing in large sums of revenue for the police authorities have not reduced the number of fatalities on the roads which, instead, have been going up steadily. Although Britain has been labelled the most surveilled country in Europe by Dr David Murakami-Wood, one of the authors of the research on present-day surveillance in the UK, the country nonetheless has achieved the dubious fame of its youngsters being the most unruly in Europe, according to another report published at the same time. And all those cameras did not produce a single useful picture of the presence of the alleged rucksack bombers on July 7 in London, whilst the cameras on the blown up bus were malfunctioning.
In fact, camera equipment being unserviceable is a standard excuse proffered by the police in court whenever a defendant wants to rely on police vehicle cameras as evidence in his favour to disprove the police version of events. British courts always accept this excuse without further questioning and usually accept police evidence as superior to that of any other witnesses in spite of a whole array of miscarriages of justice and police corruption and fabrications having been unearthed over time. Likewise, courts tend to dismiss independent recordings by individuals, for example on their mobile phone cameras, as unreliable.
From being the servant of the people government has elevated itself to their master. As much as surveillance is intended to gather information about individuals, it is also used as a tool of intimidation: Big Brother is watching you. However, the heavy reliance on surveillance equally spells out the government's insecurity. Whilst constantly wanting to spread fear amongst the populace in order to obtain tighter control, it is really the government that fears its people. Britain is on the road of becoming a totalitarian state. Let's hope a British perestroika is not too far off.