A letter recently unearthed during a house clearout dated 1925 read as follows: ‘Dear Mr. Grainger, We respectfully draw your attention to an under-payment of fifteen pounds, eight shillings and four pence made on your recent income tax remittance. We are sure this is an oversight. May we suggest the 31st of next month as being a suitable date for settlement of the balance. If you require clarification as to how we arrived at this figure we would be most happy for you to call at this office where we will endeavour to explain. In the meantime we remain your Most Obedient Servant’. How very polite and considerate this all is. No doubt here who the boss is.
The signing off tells you all you need to know: the state in those days knew its place. It was, of course, nonsense to suggest that its agents regarded themselves as anybody’s servants, but the then powers-that-be thought it important to continue to emphasise what the proper relationship should be. Today it is all different; government is in the driving seat.
With 4 million CCTV cameras in place (by far the highest number of any country in the world – North Korea included) and the planet’s largest DNA database and every conceivable detail of our lives – both personal and financial – logged, we are well and truly skewered and corralled. The East German Stasi (secret police) would have been proud.
Only the media stand between us and total subservience. That is why almost the first act of any authoritarian regime is to muzzle it. What people need to understand is that authority, be it central or local, has an insatiable urge to accumulate power – to regulate and control. It cannot help itself. It is in the nature of the beast. Only our ability to scrutinise it through the media and force it to submit itself for re-election has any hope of controlling its growth.
We like to preen ourselves as being almost the freest society on earth. But does this really stand up? We are bossed around to an extraordinary degree. Gone is the fanciful notion that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’. Hundreds of agencies have the power to barge into them and they don’t need a scaling ladder to do it either – just the local plod to intimidate any would-be heroes.
Our government recently wanted the power to lock us up without charge for 90 days and only the most extraordinary of efforts got that figure down to 28. And that is still one of the longest in the civilised world.
I cannot help believing that the age of terrorism has been a godsend to those most zealous in their urge to control us. It has given them the perfect cover to push through a range of measures under the mantra ‘Do you really want to get blown up?’ Well, the IRA were blowing us up for thirty years and were much more competent with explosives than the Jihadist buffoons – and just as ruthless. Yet we resisted bringing in all these special measures on the mainland so beloved of New Labour. They even talked of putting aircraft-like black boxes under every car bonnet until this was laughed out of court. But in truth it was no laughing matter.
They talked also of having all 62 million of us DNA tested – naturally, of course, so that they could catch more criminals. Townhalls were authorised to conduct certain types of surveillance on its citizens, and that ended up checking out people who were trying to get their kids into a decent school. Let’s not forget either the recent national census. Look at the ridiculous scope of the information it sought. And if you were unwilling to provide it, look out! You would be bludgeoned into submission.
But all is not yet lost. We appear to have a government (glory be!) which actually says it wants to devolve power from the centre to the regions. I never thought to hear it, but it says ‘Whitehall does not always know best’. It wants schools that answer to parents; elected police chiefs who have to clock up results or be thrown out; Mayors who have to run their cities competently or face the same fate; and even a social security network that protects the truly vulnerable, but not the army of scroungers.
The attitude of entitlement which so many display is truly marvellous to behold. What gives a person the idea that he or she is entitled to lie in their bed of a cold winter morning while their neighbour must get up and go off to work? And then, as if to rub salt into the wound, hold out their hand for large chunks of their neighbour’s earnings so that they can enjoy a not-much-different lifestyle. It’s actually all very bizarre. But the fact is that so many do really believe that they have that right. There’s no accounting for folk!
Nobody wants a return to certain of the bad old days. But not all of them were bad. We ought to cherry-pick what was best. Among them was neighbourliness, self-reliance (of the fit and able) and straight dealing – honesty if you like. Even today, members of the older generation are so imbued with this ethos of self-reliance that their pride will not allow them to take benefits that we would like them to take.