Big Brother and the Western World

Please Note: if you came here searching for the tedious Endemol programme Big Brother which ruins the UK television Channel 4’s listings, I am sorry but you have come to the wrong place. This is a long rant about history and how people have ignored it.

Right, disclaimer out of the way. It is an almost unarguable fact that George Orwell was actually the one true prophet. Writing decades ago, he seems to have accurately predicted how the western world would change – his only mistake was getting the date slightly wrong.

If 1984 had been called 2020 then I am afraid people would have had to start worshipping him as a god.

Back in the wonderful days of 1984 people were innocent of the true levels of surveillance which their “democratically” elected governments would place them under. People were innocent of the mind-numbing doublespeak that politicians would use almost daily to spin everything they said to the point at which it implies everything, promises nothing and can never be used to tie the speaker down to actually having said anything.

Even though I immensely disliked Margaret Thatcher (for example), at least when she spoke she said something. The fact I disagreed with it is irrelevant – at least there was something to disagree with. At the same time, the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock might have been pursuing an un-electable party line but at least they had a policy and stuck to it.

Fast forward twenty years and things have massively changed. I am not enough of a doom-sayer to say we are living in the world of 1984, but it seems this is the path on which we in the west are heading. Oddly, it also seems people are aware of this but reluctant to do anything to change it. This really surprises me.

For me, one of the early signs of the “Future” came in the early 1990’s. I am not completely naive and I don’t think that the history of politics is full of honourable people, however by and large political parties had a “manifesto” and campaigned on that basis. Until the 1970’s this seems to have worked well – as society shifted in different directions, different political parties were elected. Then came the Thatcher years and things started to change. Coming to power in 1979, Thatcher changed the political landscape in the UK massively and forced the Labour party into the wilderness of opposition for 18 years. People who voted for the first time in the 1997 General Election had never known a government other than the Conservative party.

During this time the Labour party tried to hold on to its core values, and as a result remained un-electable. During the eighties people in the UK didn’t want to be told to tighten their belts, they wanted to splash out on all the new wonders of modern life. After several election defeats (sometimes quite significant defeats – even the inept, uncharismatic, non-entity John Major defeated them), the Labour party felt the need to change.

With the invention of New Labour, the Labour party largely plagiarised the Thatcher doctrine with a few socialist-amendments to placate the old guard. As a result, they had a landslide victory in 1997, gaining the most seats they have ever held. 1997 was the death-knell for traditional politics within the UK, from this point on political parties discarded the quaint old concept of “party policies” and relied on an ever shifting set of soundbites they hoped would gain favour with the electorate. From the 2001 General Election onwards, the conservative party largely did away with the concept of having any policies and resorted to little more than personal attacks on various members of the Labour party. Even now, the Conservative party changes its policies as often as they change their underwear – they will make a statement, gauge public reaction and if it is negative they morph the policy.

Watching politicians of all stripes is almost painful now. None of them, even the previously straight talking Prime Minister, allow themselves to be tied down to actually saying anything which can’t be adjusted if the polls suggest the public didn’t like it. As a result we have a socialist Conservative party and a capitalist Labour party. No wonder the electorate don’t bother voting – they get more impact from a 10 second interview with a newscaster than they will ever get at the ballot box.

Into this crazy political landscape of doublespeak we have the Big Brother governmental surveillance which has reached levels George Orwell would be surprised by. Despite weathering 30-odd years of Irish terrorist attacks on the mainland (including a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street), it seems the threat of Islamic inspired terrorism is something new for us in the UK. In response to this threat, we have ramped up an already monumental surveillance state until it is now considered on a par with China and Russia (EPIC and Privacy International Findings). In the UK we have recently been massively exposed to how inept government organisations generally are when it comes to protecting data, yet at the same time we are indifferent to government plans to collect and store more and more data. Police have an amazing array of “stop and search” powers that largely ignore any individual right to privacy or the assumption of innocence. Legislation has passed to allow the government to intern (*) detain a person for 42 days without any need to prove guilt – the simple suspicion of being involved in terrorism or even just associated with terrorists is enough. Safeguards (albeit minimal) currently exist, however it is easy to see how this could quickly become a law making it illegal to be “Arabic-looking” in a public place. Even as an atheist, the demonisation of one individual religious / cultural group is worrying (first they came).

Most worrying of all, is that over the years people have become more and more complacent about such abuses of power. We are not yet in the world Orwell described in 1984 (and to a lesser extent, the other books) but it seems that we are democratically marching down the road to it. With a few more terrorist threats (already it takes longer to get on a plane than it does to actually get to your destination for all internal UK flights), a few more (false) headline news items about soaring crime rates and things may change. Will we see a time when DNA is collected at birth, ID is checked whenever people move from city to city, your car is tracked by government controlled satellites or worse? Sadly it seems most of this has already been suggested in all seriousness.

In the year 2020, will people look back on today as a time of needless worry, or halcyon days of freedom and liberty? Will our ancestors who gave their lives for our freedom be pleased with what we have done with it, or turn in their graves?

Note: I know next to nothing about US politics and would be interested to hear how it compares to the madness we have in the UK.

(*) See more at BBC On This Day and CAIN. It is generally accepted that this was a policy which did more harm than good.

3 thoughts on “Big Brother and the Western World

  1. Here in the U.S. things are somewhat similar, in that politicians are increasingly amorphous, their beings changed on a whim. (Hillary Clinton, for example, is a master of failing to take a stand in order to retain “plausible deniability”, although the other Democratic candidates are hardly any better.) The difference is that whim does not come from the public. Most polls these days show that most Americans want to pull out of Iraq and set up nationalized healthcare, for example, but support for these initiatives is thin at best.

    American political culture is configured, at the moment, to create a ratcheting to the right. The Republicans (and the press, which is basically owned by Republican interests) constantly pushes further to the right, while the Democrats make a show of being cooperative. Since there is no national-level third party (a state of affairs encouraged by both the Democrats and the Republicans) the Democrats can thus be right-of-center, yet still be the party of the “left”.

    The current situation reflects that: the Republicans have finally reached the point where they may have pushed too far. We have four Republican candidates for president who seriously believe in young-earth creationism, at least two of whom have made it abundantly clear that their long-term goal is theocracy. They may still succeed — people may not trust Fox News and its ilk like they used to, but that doesn’t remove their influence on discourse — but it looks increasingly like only Christian fundamentalists are serious about the Republican campaigns.

    Thus control of the country is likely to return to the Democratic party. This is worrisome. Our last Democratic president was Clinton, and the only reason we think of him with fondness is because he was followed by the most extravagant screwup in the country. All three of the Democratic frontrunners right now managed to either vote for the USA-PATRIOT Act (which is the enabling language for Big Brother in America) or for the war in Iraq, or both. None of them has done anything to actually stop the various insanities of the Bush regime. And at the first sign of any complaint at all from the right wing, all three immediately apologize.

    As long as we’re talking about discourse, it’s worth noting that there are code words in American political discourse. The most famous is, of course, “family values”, sometimes shortened to “values”. When someone talks about “family values”, they mean “fundamentalist Christianity”. (Not “Christian values”, which are relatively benign, or even values at all, but fundamentalist Christian organization and worship.) There are assorted other ones of varying frequency — “pro-life”, “tough on crime”, “war on drugs”. My favorite is opposition to “Dred Scott”. There was, of course, a real Dred Scott case, but when you hear a right winger talk about Dred Scott today, they’re using it as a euphemism for Roe vs. Wade, the case which set the precedent making abortion legal…

  2. Vicar, thank you for an excellent and informative comment.

    It is sad that US politics mirrors ours (or vice versa, take your pick). With politicians so determined to concentrate on “electability” rather than political viewpoints, it seems the world will remain in a quagmire.

    Bring back the days of my youth where you would just know where pretty much all party members would stand on an issue.

  3. We have moved on from the Age of Aquarius and are now firmly entrenched in an age of Corruption and Incompetence.

    This new age has been allowed to develop by the now interminably low standards of the BBC News reporting and lazy journalists who write what they are told rather than find out for themselves.

    Consider that our, UK, politicians spent £1 Billion ($2 Billion) on a glorified tent. The Romans, 2,000 years ago, built the coliseum. It helps you realise the gap in leadership quality and ambition.

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