In a remarkable display of doublespeak on the Guardian website today, "Justice Minister" Jack Straw declared that the New Labour government has done more for human rights and democracy in Britain since we first gained the vote. Seemingly oblivious to the irony, he quotes "the last 10 years will be seen as heralding a 'quiet revolution' in the way in which the UK is governed".
Now, Mr Straw is a bright chap. So, assuming that he hasn't turned into an evil machiavellian genius or lost his marbles on some pre-Christmas shopping spree mental breakdown, what are we to make of these curious and obviously untrue utterances? Because of course they are untrue - obscenely so, in the case of:
- the massive increase in surveillance and infringement of civil liberties
- Indefinite detention without trial
- 42 days pre-charge detention
- Banning of protest within 1 mile of Parliament
- Use of the Terrorism Act to prevent legitimate protest
- National Identity Register
- ID Card
- DNA database
- NHS Spine register
- National Child database
- Kratos Shoot to Kill policy
- Heaviest concentration of CCTV cameras in the world
- Complicity in CIA extraordinary rendition
- Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems
So what is Jack actually trying to say?
Well, the answer seems to be twofold. First, his contention is that all these 3000-odd new laws are not here to circumscribe our liberties, but to describe them. If our behavioural limits are enshrined in law, then they are subsequently protected by those laws - within the limits set, of course. This is a nice legal technicality, of course, and rides on the establishment being competent to apply the law or laws in question. Sadly, however such laws tend to be honoured more in the breach - little sense having all our data on a highly sophisticated universal database, if some spod then leaves all the info in a CD on a bus seat somewhere. Stretched further, the advantage of such laws presupposes a benevolent government; naively, of course, as history throws up countless examples of laws being ruthlessly misapplied or simply ignored or sidestepped when convenient once a less than benevolent government takes power - to whit, the current US administration, South American banana republics, China, Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, East Germany, etc, etc, ad nauseam. Perhaps only a lawyer is able to believe that thousands of new laws are somehow "better" for people...
Secondly, and perhaps more personally, it is possible that Jack Straw, like many other Old Labour MPs who see themselves dragged along by an increasingly authoritarian government and dependent on it for their careers, identities, and livelihoods, Jack Straw is trying to convince himself. There was a time when Labour ideals did not constitute kowtowing to US militarism, to sucking up to property developers, or to making dissent and reasonable protest illegal. All of these things which New Labour does routinely now would have raised howls of outrage amongst Straw and his gang in the early eighties. In truth, the only reasonable action for an MP of conscience in the Labour party now is to split off and form a new party of the old Labour party ideals - equal rights, protection of the population from the inroads of unrestrained capitalism, anti-militarism, international solidarity, freedom and social justice.
But who amongst the New Labour biggies, with their impending knighthoods and vast incomes, is going to shoot himself in the foot for the sake of political principles? Well, there've been a few - Robin Cook, before his mysterious death. Tony Benn. Recent murmurs from Frank Dobson. But by far the vast majority have obediently put away their ideals and donned the party uniform of duckspeak and heads-down passivity whilst their history of liberal opposition is hosed away. Blunkett. Brown. Blair. Mandelson. Yowza.
Manuscripts Don't Burn did think Jack Straw might have been one of the good guys. Perhaps, deep down, he still is, and will surprise us yet. Perhaps, in these grim days of fear, loathing, and control, the person he wants most to convince is - himself.