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Watchful Eyes

LONDON—Travelers on London’s decrepit bus system face many miseries and are surrounded by many signs of this great city’s decay and decline. Dirt, menace, delay, overcrowding, and graffiti are just some of them. These things are normal in Britain as it prepares to apply for full membership in the Third World, perhaps the first cold, wet country to qualify.

But the most shocking indication of national crisis is the recent appearance of posters intended to reassure riders that—despite all appearances to the contrary—they are safe from crime. These posters can only be described as sinister. They depict a red double-decker bus crossing a bridge over the Thames. In the sky are four disembodied eyes, looking down from the heavens. The legend reads, “Secure beneath the watchful eyes, CCTV [Closed Circuit TV] and Metropolitan Police on buses are just two ways we’re making your journey more secure.”

This is not a joke. In the city where George Orwell set 1984, citizens are supposed to be reassured and pleased by the fact that they are under almost constant remote surveillance. Perhaps some are comforted, though the record of spy cameras in preventing or detecting crime is, to put it gently, patchy. The notorious abduction of a tiny child, James Bulger, actually took place under the lifeless gaze of such cameras, which recorded the fatal moment but—being mere technology—failed to call out a warning. James was murdered a few hours later.

The centers of many British cities, and plenty of other public spaces, are now scanned by these devices, though it is not clear whether anyone is actually watching the transmissions or that the images they produce are clear enough to be used in subsequent prosecutions. An estimated 1.5 million such cameras whirr and blink in all parts of our small country, a figure that does not include privately owned equipment.

Even where they are effective, they do not truly deter or prevent crime and at best displace it. The response of wrongdoers is either to move into the suburbs, where cameras are rarer, or to wear hoods while they do their muggings and perform their acts of vandalism.

The watchful eyes are not the only example of the curious new phenomenon of popular, or at least populist attacks, on liberty. In recent years, Britain has experienced a strange combination of disorder and illiberalism, in which crime and misbehavior are used as the pretexts for measures and methods that would once have seemed laughable in a free country. The supposed War on Terror, which began soon after the British government had surrendered to the terrorist Irish Republican Army following a 30-year conflict, has accelerated this process. There is not the slightest sign that the restriction of liberty or the surveillance have done anything to curb crime, but the process continues anyway, supported in varying degree by all mainstream politicians.

British police officers, once famous for having no guns, now carry weapons with increasing frequency and will, in the foreseeable future, be routinely armed. Often they appear in militaristic garb, including battledress and even camouflage. The old, deliberately understated uniform has for the most part been abandoned, though keen watchers can occasionally spot a traditional helmeted officer. The disappearance of the legendary “Bobby” is often blamed on manpower shortages. But these are mythical. There are more police officers per head of population than there have ever been. They just no longer do the jobs for which the public thought it had hired them.

Yet while there is less law, there is more power. For instance, Americans used to the Bill of Rights may be shocked to learn that accused persons here no longer have an absolute right to remain silent. If they do so, the jury may be invited to draw conclusions from their silence, and their defenses may be prejudiced.

These changes in law and methods are only part of a general increase in naked authority, accompanied by a paradoxical increase in the rights of accused criminals, deemed by the modern Left to be sufferers in need of consideration rather than malefactors in need of retribution. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984, followed by the incorporation of the European Charter of Human Rights into British law, have made prosecutions of the guilty extraordinarily difficult. One form badly filled in, one tiny breach of the code of practice at a line-up, and the case collapses. Sir David Phillips, Chief Constable of the county of Kent, recently complained, “The purpose of a trial is to find out the truth. But we no longer have trials about who did it—the trial is always about whether somebody broke the rules in trying to find out who did it.” The police certainly seem to have extraordinarily bad luck in catching the right person. Nearly one case in eight falls apart before it comes to court. Acquittals have risen to extraordinary levels. In Liverpool, 79 percent of defendants in contested trials went free during the year 2000, many of these because the judge had directed an acquittal. I visited the Liverpool courthouse last year and was told unofficially that unpunished witness intimidation was widespread and successful, as is intimidation of jurors themselves. Police privately blame prosecutors for making a mess of too many cases. Prosecutors privately blame the police for the same thing. Both accuse defense attorneys of unscrupulous use of tactics. Juries themselves, once composed of respectable, mature householders are now largely bereft of the middle class or the skilled working class. Educated people have become very good at avoiding jury service, seen as a chore rather than a privilege, and the minimum age for jury service is 18, greatly increasing the likelihood that jurors will be anti-establishment and cool towards the police.

British prisons are crowded, often squalid, undisciplined, and full of illegal drugs. The danger of disorder is avoided by installing television sets in cells and similar sorts of appeasement. There are no plans, however, to build many more. Instead, sentences are automatically halved for most convicts, and many are released early with electronic tags around their ankles that are meant to restrict them to their homes during the hours of darkness. The results are dubious.

While drug-taking is acknowledged as a major cause of crime, the possession of marijuana is no longer prosecuted in many areas, especially parts of London that have since become even busier drug-marts than they were before. Schools teach children “harm reduction” techniques rather than advising them that drug-taking is wrong. Unsurprisingly, illegal drug use and the concomitant theft and aggressive begging continue to increase. The use of illegal guns by criminals, often but not always linked to drug-trafficking, is now becoming a serious problem. Armed crime and savage violence are at levels unknown for a century.

There are many possible responses to this mess. We could build more prisons, and bring those that exist back under the control of the authorities rather than of the inmates as they are now. Reintroducing the police foot patrols abandoned in the 1960s might be one helpful step.

Reintroducing some sort of property or educational qualification for jurors might be another. None of these is contemplated. Instead, the response is to pass new and more draconian laws, most of which will remain unenforced by police and courts—and to attack the civil liberties of the law-abiding majority. We could restore the death penalty, whose abolition was immediately followed by the growth in armed and violent crime. Instead, the state bans the law-abiding from owning guns.

Police forces face a purge of conservative elements following the Stephen Lawrence affair. Mr. Lawrence, a young black man of good family and exemplary background, was foully murdered in South London 1993, almost certainly for racial reasons. The police and prosecution authorities failed to bring his murderer or murderers to justice. An attempted prosecution also collapsed, making it impossible to try these suspects again. A political campaign then began, which suggested that this failure was due to police racism. After a lengthy inquiry, Sir William Macpherson was unable to find any evidence that the police would have handled the investigation differently had Stephen Lawrence been white. He instead concluded that the Metropolitan Police were “institutionally racist,” a charge that provided the pretext for a widespread change in police culture. Most British police forces still contain large numbers of socially and culturally conservative veteran officers, but they also contain a growing number of younger, college-educated, culturally and socially liberal recruits. It is likely that Macpherson’s report greatly strengthened the hands of the new type of policeman.

The Macpherson report also led to calls for the abolition of the ancient protection against being tried twice. Hard cases, as ever, make bad law. But in this case the passionate belief that the failure to convict anyone for Stephen Lawrence’s death was a symptom of deep racial prejudice led many on the Left to believe that a second trial was justified in this case. Thus those who consider themselves political liberals found they were lined up behind one of the most illiberal measures ever put forward by a modern government.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration, which campaigned on the interesting slogan “Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime,” is particularly keen on such illiberalism. It has made several attempts to limit jury trial and would clearly like to abolish it as a universal right. A subservient House of Commons, now a salaried Supreme Soviet, would happily do this. Only the House of Lords, where a few uncowed spirits still survive, has so far resisted it. But the Lords grow weaker each year and will soon be overborne. Unpaid justices of the peace in the lower courts, long seen as a guarantee of independence, are increasingly being replaced by centrally appointed and centrally paid magistrates. On the excuse of combating terrorism, the government has breached the principles of habeas corpus by introducing detention without trial. It would like to be able to lock up people with “personality disorders,” to prevent them from committing crimes. It will shortly permit courts in other states of the European Union (which almost all lack juries, the presumption of innocence, and habeas corpus) to order the arrest of British citizens without the need for extradition, quite possibly for crimes that do not even exist in this country. In fact, the growing importance of EU law in Britain may lead to the de facto imposition of continental methods here, where the state is prosecutor, judge, and jury. A European Police Force already exists and is gathering to itself all kinds of “federal” powers that will initially be deployed against corruption and drug-dealing, those grandstand crimes whose prosecution always makes governments and police forces look like guardians of the public rather than of the state.

Proper conservatives in Britain have been frustrated and infuriated by the way in which so many of their supposed allies, both at home and abroad, have willingly allowed themselves to be deceived by the Blair government. Credulous and unobservant, they have listened to Downing Street’s well-tuned propaganda and accepted that Mr. Blair is another Thatcher, sympathetic to liberty, a friend of the middle class, and the enemy of his party’s radical levelers. Anyone who can continue to believe this in the face of Mr. Blair’s record on education, the married family, the maintenance of our armed forces, the constitution, state intervention, and taxation is beyond my help. Those who imagine that his support for the alleged war against terror and the recent war against Iraq makes him a new Churchill merely display their historical ignorance. Time, one hopes, will undeceive them.

But it is in this government’s relentless assault on the ancient liberties that form the basis of English-speaking civilization that any observer must surely find the proof that we are here dealing with a regime of the destructive Left. Regrettably, the British Conservative Party shares some of the guilt, though a few of its leading members have recently begun to show a belated concern for liberty. Since it is, for most purposes, an egalitarian Social Democratic party with some relics of Toryism in its psychology, this posture is not wholly surprising. Many of Labour’s worst measures were prefigured or attempted in the Thatcher years by Conservative politicians who wished to appear ferocious for electoral purposes but who had no real intention of reintroducing proper justice into the courts.

They too are seduced by the idea that there are “causes of crime” that can be solved by taxation and political power rather than by what the Anglican Prayer Book calls “the punishment of wickedness and vice.” The delusion that redistribution from the respectable and the striving to the rest will improve behavior is still powerful among them, along with a deep unwillingness to punish an actual individual for an actual offence. They should know better. The middle classes are not good because they are prosperous, but prosperous because they are good. Left alone to reap the rewards of that goodness, these classes will grow until they encompass most of the population, and their moral values of self-restraint and respect for the rule of law will come to be shared by the huge majority. Power will then be transferred from the state to the individual, and liberty of all kinds will flourish. Those who will not behave can then be punished sternly without threatening the liberty of anyone else.

Take the other course, undermine individual moral choice and the power of the family, assume that all goodness and benevolence lies with the ruler, treat people as if they require subsidies before they can be expected to behave well, confiscate the rewards of diligence, and abolish the absolute right of property, and you get the explosion of selfish crime and disorder that too many Western societies are now experiencing.

That explosion in turn provides the excuse for the state to take more powers to restrict the liberty of the individual and to levy more taxes. The end of the process is egalitarian absolutism, controlled by a corrupt and remote authority, where power cancels out law. “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” is an excellent slogan for a would-be totalitarian. 


Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday and the author of The Abolition of Britain. His latest book is A Brief History of Crime.

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