Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Musings on England

(I recently wrote a 'letter from America' for a magazine in England, in which I reflected on the lamentable erosion of freedom in both America and England. Following is a copy of the letter.)
There are many things I miss about England since I moved to America. I miss the English food, I miss the English countryside and, above all, I miss my English wife who is still waiting for her visa before she can come and join me.

But there is one thing that I do not miss about England. I do not miss the sense of constantly being watched. I do not miss that gnawing suspicion that my private life is in fact public.

An official report last year, compiled on behalf of information commissioner Richard Thomas, revealed that the British people were more spied upon by their political leaders than any other population in the free world.[1] The surveillance experts and academics who compiled the report pointed out that through the growing network of databases, surveillance systems and security cameras, the average Brit now has his movements tracked, habits profiled and photograph taken up to 300 times a day.

Richard Thomas pointed out that “a record is kept of every internet site they [British citizens] visit. They don’t realise that when identity cards come in, there will be a record of their movements and every time they have engaged with any public service.”

More recently Simon Davies reported in the Mail on Sunday that Britian's transformation into a surveillance society continues. He pointed out that a new law came quietly into effect at the beginning of Oct. whereby a log of every phone call or text you make or receive will be stored for a year and made available to 652 public bodies.

Over the next 18 months, the Government wants to extend these powers to cover people’s email and internet activity. The Week magazine pointed out that these measures represent ‘a pernicious shift’ in the relationship between the state and ordinary citizens. Whereas in the past, the authorities targeted specific individuals for surveillance, now the all-seeing eye of the state increasingly treats us all as potential suspects.

Gaurdian collumnist Henry Porter has similarly complained that UK lawmakers are cultivating “a we-know-where-you-live edge to the message, a sense that this government is dividing the nation into suspects and informers.”[2]

I can say from personal experience that Mr. Porter has a point. Earlier in the year, while I was still living in England, a social worker visited us to investigate because there had been an anonymous complaint about our parenting. The complaint, we were told, was that our children were not dressed warmly enough when playing outside. Social services also had to investigate us because an anonymous informant reported that our children were being too noisy when playing outside.

There was another occasion when an officer from the environmental services showed up to investigate our property. The reason? They had received an anonymous complaint that we were harbouring rats in our back garden. After conducting an investigation and failing to find any rats, the officer left us in peace.

I mention these instances because they represent on a small scale what has been happening in Britain on the larger scale. The Labour Government has introduced mechanisms for spying on our lives and families and even, in some instances, people’s beliefs. The latter point can be seen in the way UK constabularies currently operate under ‘guidance’ which defines a ‘hate incident’ so broadly that it can include debating another person about their lifestyle.[3] Although this guidance has no statutory force, and has been called ‘pseudo-law’ by one distinguished constitutional lawyer, it can influence the policy of police constabularies provided it does not lead to an actual charge being issued.[4] The effect is that simply to express certain viewpoints can be treated as criminal.

It was this tendency to police beliefs that Dr. N. T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, lambasted in an address to the House of Lords on 9 February, 2006. Dr. Wright referred to a new class of crimes which “have to do, not with actions but with ideas and beliefs.” He said:

"People in my diocese have told me that they are now afraid to speak their minds in the pub on some major contemporary issues for fear of being reported, investigated, and perhaps charged. My Lords, I did not think I would see such a thing in this country in my lifetime…. The word for such a state of affairs is ‘tyranny’: sudden moral climate change, enforced by thought police."[5]

Bishop Wright has a point. From religious organisations that must now navigate the increasingly complex labyrinth of gay rights laws[6] to Christian Unions that are being forced to admit atheists into their ranks, it is clear that Britain’s liberals are making sure Big Brother does more than merely watch us: he’s checking out our credo.[7] Chesterton was surely prophetic when he conjectured that “We may eventually be bound not to disturb a man’s mind even by argument; not to disturb the sleep of birds even by coughing.”[8]

Even as I was writing these thoughts, news reached me that the UK Government has published its proposed 'homophobic hatred' law. Modelled on the religious hatred law, this legislation will specifically target threatening behaviour against homosexuals. Given that holding a Biblical view on marriage is enough to make many homosexuals feel threatened, this legislation could be used to clamp Christians. Further, while the religious hatred law and the Human Rights Act includes a protection of free speech, the 'homophobic hatred' law does not

When I first came to America this year, the US congress was considering introducing hate crime legislation that would have had the effect of spying on our beliefs in the same way that surveillance cameras spy on our movements. Even many conservative Americans are increasingly ready to give up their cherished freedoms in the name of public safety.

Sometimes we have to have something taken away from us before we appreciate how precious it really is. Such is often the case with freedom.

[1] ‘British the most spied-on people in western world’, Times Online, October 29, 2006,

[2] Henry Porter, ‘This ID card project is even more sinister than we first thought’, The Guardian, Sunday March 19, 2006.,,1734265,00.html

[3] See Hate Crime: Delivering A Quality Service – Good Practice and Tactical Guidance, published by the Home Office Police Standard Unit and ACPO, 2005, available online at See also Mark Steyn, ‘What is a crime? It's a matter of opinion’, The Daily Telegraph, December 13, 2005, available online at

[4] See Francis Bennion’s fascinating article ‘pseudo law’, available at

[5] ‘Moral Climate Change and Freedom of Speech’, speech in the House of Lords, February 9 2006, by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright, available online at . Also see my article on thought police at

[6] See Melanie Phillips’ article, ‘A law that turns sexual tolerance into tyranny’, The Daily Mail, 19th June 2006. Available online at

[7] See my article ‘Dawkins and the Rise of Militant Atheism’, available online at

[8] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith (New York: Doubleday, 1908), p. 113. Chesterton’s words are a pretty good description of the Protection From Harassment Act 1997. Worded so vaguely that almost any form of repeated conduct can become a crime, it gives the crown authority to prosecute anyone causing a person ‘alarm or distress’ if this involves ‘conduct on at least two occasions.’ Because such conduct ‘includes speech’, and because it is not necessary to demonstrate that the person causing distress has used abusive or insulting words, merely disturbing a man’s mind by argument could become a criminal offence if another person finds it distressing. The penalty is six months imprisonment or an order preventing the person from repeating the offence on pain of 5 years behind bars. It is now used routinely against peaceful protestors. The anti-intellectual implications of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act 2005 is equally disturbing. Although this Act is most known for removing freedom to demonstrate outside Parliament, it also includes a section on ‘harassment intended to deter lawful activities’. Under this act, it is an offence to cause alarm or distress to ‘two or more persons’ by ‘harassing’ them. ‘Harassment’ is defined as seeking ‘to persuade any person ... to do something that he is not under any obligation to do’. This means that if I try to persuade two or more people to change their philosophical views, then because they are under no legal obligation to do so, in theory I could be taken to court for harassment if the other person finds my axioms sufficiently distressing. (See George Monbiot's article 'I'm pleased the case against this ranting homophobe was dropped', The Guardian, October 3, 2006, available online at,,1886185,00.html. See also my article ‘The Orwellian Legacy of Tony Blair’, available online at See also Peter Kitchens, The Abolition of Liberty (Atlantic Books, 2004).

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to phillips7440 (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.
Post a Comment

Buy Essential Oils at Discounted Prices!