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The fear of being watched is innate within the human condition, having been developed over millions of years of evolutionary time and experience. The right not to be watched when going about private or legal business has equally ancient roots, having been fought for from the earliest flickerings of human civilisation.
Despite that long struggle (and its success in other parts of the West) the amount of active surveillance in the United Kingdom remains a disgrace. Take this from someone who is coming to the close of an extended period working abroad – a period that has been marked by a strange and bracing sense of personal freedom and responsibility.
When British people complain of a nanny state or of a ‘Big Brother’ society, the popular tendency is to snigger and judge. Such people (others feel) are simply exaggerating, guilty or else unduly paranoid. To ruffle up this lackadaisical (not to mention extremely irresponsible) serenity, let’s rehearse some important figures:
According to the Guardian (a most un-libertarian rag) there is now one CCTV camera in operation for every 32 British citizens. This means that a total of 1.85 million cameras currently operate in the United Kingdom. There are more CCTV cameras operating in the London borough of Wandsworth than in Dublin, San Francisco, Boston and Johannesburg combined. In the capital as a whole (not the greater region), there are 7431. This compares to just 326 operating in the city of Paris. Indeed, there are more cameras operating in the town of Wigan than in the terror-hit French capital.
British people are watched to an extent that even Orwell’s famous dystopia would have found excessive. When this is added to other forms of surveillance, Britons are reckoned (by serious observers) to enjoy less privacy than East-Germans at the time of the Stasi.
Why is this the case? Of course, the government will reflexively claim that it is for ‘our own good’ – that it is to protect us from crime, terror and accident. But if this were true, why on Earth are the citizenry of Wigan considered to be at greater risk than the Parisians?
None of the official excuses make any sense. And while I don’t want to become a tin-foil hat-wearing type, (I don’t believe in the grand conclusions of Alex Jones et al) something does need to be done if we (and our posterity) are to retain the most basic levels of dignity and freedom of action.
As is well known, Americans are more naturally attuned to the barometer of liberty than we are. On occasion, they are rather too attuned to it. But we really need to take a leaf out of their book when it is necessary to do so. The UK government currently retains the power to read our private emails, to watch what we do in the street and (in urban environments) to film our own back gardens.
This isn’t natural. This isn’t necessary.