Stop telling me what to do
Why do our rulers always want to boss us about? It's time to stand up and start causing trouble
Sunday November 30, 2003
No week goes by without some new initiative to restrain the freedoms or rights of a particular group. One ignores these individually because there are better, more amusing things to think about. But taken as whole, the actions of our nannying institutions are extremely worrying, the more so perhaps because we do so little to resist them.
The chairman of the BBC's governors, Gavyn Davies, led the way last week, although it could have been any one of the rattled, control-freak mediocrities borne upwards by the rise of New Labour. Anticipating criticism in the Hutton report, Davies and his fellow governors proposed to stop BBC employees writing in the press. This means that John Humphrys, John Simpson, Fergal Keane and Andrew Marr, among others, will have to make a choice between the BBC and their writing careers.
Whichever way you look at it, this restricts the freedom of these individuals to express themselves. The move is absolutely, undeniably wrong and it is surprising that Davies, who once helped set up a liberal newspaper (the Sunday Correspondent ) has not grasped this. The minor sins committed by BBC journalists during the Kelly affair are as nothing compared to the distorted case for war produced by the Government.
Every BBC governor should find the time this weekend to consider whether he or she has added to the life of the nation with this rule, or contributed to the incremental narrowing of debate and stifling of individual liberty. If their democratic faculties are remotely intact they will find for the latter. For their part, the journalists should make a stand on this, but I will come to my ideas for direct action in defence of liberty later.
The BBC is not alone among political and social institutions in seeking to restrict behaviour and limit freedoms. It is a natural law of governance that sooner or later those who govern realise - albeit subconsciously - that their actual effect on the things they hope to influence is minimal. At this point they resort to petty authoritarian measures which reassure the politician and the bureaucrat that their power is real and effective. A Home Secretary, burdened with the intractable problems of his office, naturally gravitates to the idea of identity cards as a means of tracking and pinning down the population that so inconveniences the grand designs of his civil servants.
Was there ever a large group of people clamouring for identity cards, marching and demonstrating in favour of the centralised data bank containing the details of every man, woman and child in this country? It is only civil servants and policemen who want the cards and press the doubtful claim that they will help in the fight against terrorism, under-age drinking and illegal immigration.
What identity cards will do is to deprive us of our rights to privacy and anonymity. And who's to say how a central registry of all Britons will be used one day, linked, as it surely will be, to National Insurance, tax records and the universal DNA database proposed by the more authoritarian members of the Home Office? I do not believe that the Government has sufficiently earned our trust for us to hand it such an instrument of control, and I pray we have the sense to resist the move and to remind the child-catcher Blunkett that he works for us, not his civil servants.
And this is the important point. We must protest, assert our freedoms and the right not to be interfered with, tracked, logged, photographed, patrolled, clamped and surreptitiously inspected by central and local government without good cause. The great civil liberties that this country enjoys have to be protected just as ordinary freedoms must be; freedoms such as smoking in the pub (if you don't like it, don't go), hunting (if you disapprove, don't watch) and, yes, feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the ban of which came from that car-hating Marxist, Ken Livingstone.
Naturally, the proponents of these measures insist they have our best interests at heart and are working for the greater good. But scrape the surface and you'll find some bossy twerp who either thinks he knows how you should live your life, or sees an opportunity to extort money from you.
Never was the clearer example of impotence mutating to venomous control freakery than the proposal - now to be made in a Private Member's Bill - to ban hunting with dogs. The MPs who stood by and watched their leader invade a sovereign country and did nothing to hold him to account when the pretext for that invasion was proved to be flawed, now turn their second-rate, feckless minds to the hunting ban, in the belief that they are doing something to improve the moral decency of the country. Forgive me if I'm unimpressed with the party in government. But I simply do not see how a Labour MP who has gone along with Blair deserves to be in Parliament, let alone in the position to limit my freedoms.
So let's return to the subject of direct action. One would not want to encourage serious disruption at the BBC, but journalists should fight for their right to write where they like. Wildcat strikes and occasional invasions of the chamber where governors meet might impress upon Gavyn Davies that he cannot remove people's rights because he wants to oblige a government, to which, for comfort's sake, he is far too close. BBC journalists should assert their right to make what arrangements they choose in their own time, as long as it does not harm the BBC. (Andrew Gilligan's Mail on Sunday article did harm the BBC, but it also shook a lot of fruit from the tree.)
Perhaps we should be more French. More bloody minded. More willing to cause trouble. Where local or national governments take liberties, when police forces seek to raise their revenues with speed traps, and councils levy fines for the slightest parking infraction we should act and make these people understand that they are our servants. We pay their salaries and they work for us.
One would not want to incite people to break the law but it does seem extraordinary that we have allowed so many speed cameras to remain on safe stretches of road. In Italy they were all shot out. Equally, the extortionate parking policy of so many councils would seem to call for those that feel persecuted to make their voices heard.