By Cath Elliott | It seems incredible now, but on the May 3 1997 I actually celebrated Labour’s election victory. After 18 years of a Conservative government that had cosied up to dictators and murderous regimes around the globe; that had overseen the destruction of the country’s manufacturing and mining industries; that had driven 3 million people out of work and on to the dole, and that had seen the affable Dixon of Dock Green transformed into a brutal and vicious agent of the state, I, like many other people at the time, truly believed that with New Labour in power, things could only get better.
A few days later, when Robin Cook delivered his speech outlining the new administration’s commitment to an ethical foreign policy, I relaxed, breathed a sigh of relief, and watched with joy as the old guard retreated, licking their wounds after such a thorough and well-deserved trouncing.
In that speech, Cook said:
The Labour government does not accept that political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business. Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves. The Labour government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy.
The challenge for every government is to respond to the changing demands of national security, while upholding something that is at the heart of the British constitutional settlement: the preservation of civil liberties. And if the national interest requires new measures to safeguard our security, it is, in my view, the British way to make those changes in a manner that maximises the protection of individuals against arbitrary treatment.
Or to paraphrase slightly: “In order to preserve civil liberties, we need to sacrifice civil liberties.”
In cahoots with an equally distasteful American regime, the New Labour government has masterminded and overseen an erosion to individual freedoms and liberties that both Thatcher and Reagan, even in the darkest days of their rule, could only have dreamed of. Not content with removing all ethics from our foreign policy, they are doing their damnedest to make sure that before we know it, civil liberties and human rights at home will soon be nothing more than a distant memory. ID cards, “Sus” laws, 42-days detention, extraordinary rendition, waterboarding, torture, juryless trials, secret prison ships, a hidden network of “black sites” where suspects are interrogated and who-knows-what-else away from prying eyes and ears: these are all the stuff of fiction, of spy novels and sci-fi. They’re the stuff of nightmares, the grimmest of fairy tales brought to life, with our government firmly in the role of bogeyman.
When the left marched in the 1980s against Pinochet, and when we stood in solidarity with the mothers and sisters of the disappeared, little did we know that our government would one day be capable of the same; that 20 years down the line the British and the Americans would be snatching people away in the dead of night, surveilling their own citizens around the clock, and intercepting both their phone calls and their correspondence. Little did we know that the excesses of which we accused the old Soviet regime would soon be employed against us.
When the iron curtain fell we looked on in fascination as the Stasi and the KGB opened up their files to public scrutiny, stunned that states would keep such meticulous records on their own people. We’re now trying to work out how big a vault will be needed when the government gets its way and starts logging our every key stroke, collecting details about every second we spend on the internet. We’re left wondering how many years it will be before these secret records are opened up for scrutiny, if indeed they ever are. Perhaps the so-called war on terror will never end, and we’ve finally arrived at Orwell’s perpetual war.
For 18 long years I campaigned to help get a Labour government back into power, but I never signed up for any of this; the loss of our civil liberties was never a part of the game plan. And if Brown’s now wondering why his ratings are so low, why his party’s nearly bankrupt and his defeat at the next election is all but assured, then he needs to think carefully about those of us who have been sold so short by 11 years of New Labour mismanagement. He needs to think about those who helped this government into power, and who can now only look on in horror as slowly but surely, brick by brick, they dismantle everything we hold precious.
Liam Byrne can wax lyrical about Britishness all he likes; his government lost sight of what that means many years ago. Whether it happens on St George’s Day or on the August bank holiday, when they finally start enforcing their mass celebrations and dictating to the populace how best to commemorate our illusory freedom, I’ll be staying inside my house with my doors and windows firmly locked and I’d advise everyone else to do the same. As Alan Paton said:
Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.