Features

net.wars: The elected dictatorship

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 15 October 2010


I wish I had a nickel for every time I had the following conversation with some British interlocutor in the 1970s and 1980s:
 
BI: You should never have gotten rid of Nixon.
 
wg: He was a crook.
 
BI: They're all crooks. He was the best foreign policy president you ever had.
 
As if it were somehow touchingly naïve to expect that politicians should be held to standards of behaviour in office. (Look, I don't care if they have extramarital affairs; I care if they break the law.)
 
It is, however, arguable that the key element of my BIs' disapproval was that Americans had the poor judgment and bad taste to broadcast the Watergate hearings live on television. (Kids, this was 1972. There was no C-Span then.) If Watergate had happened in the UK, it's highly likely no one would ever have heard about it until 50 or however many years later the Public Records Office opened the archives.
 
Around the time I founded The Skeptic, I became aware of the significant cultural difference in how people behave in the UK versus the US when they are unhappy about something. Britons write to their MP. Americans…make trouble. They may write letters, but they are equally likely to found an organization and create a campaign. This do-it-yourself ethic is completely logical in a relatively young country where democracy is still taking shape.
 
Britain, as an older – let's be polite and call it mature – country, operates instead on a sort of "gentlemen's agreement" ethos (vestiges of which survive in the US Constitution, to be sure). You can get a surprising amount done – if you know the right people. That system works perfectly for the in-group, and so to effect change you either have to become one of them (which dissipates your original desire for change) or gate-crash the party. Sometimes, it takes an American…
 
This was Heather Brooke's introduction to English society. The daughter of British parents and the wife of a British citizen, burned out from years of investigative reporting on murders and other types of mayhem in the American South, she took up residence in Bethnal Green with her husband. And became bewildered when repeated complaints to the council and police about local crime produced no response. Stonewalled, she turned to writing her book Your Right to Know, which led her to make her first inquiries about viewing MPs' expenses. The rest is much-aired scandal.
 
In her latest book, The Silent State, Brooke examines the many ways that British institutions are structured to lock out the public. The most startling revelation: things are getting worse, particularly in the courts, where the newer buildings squeeze public and press into even more cramped, uncomfortable spaces than the older buildings. Certainly, the airport-style security that's now required for entry into Parliament buildings sends the message that the public are both unwelcome and not to be trusted (getting into Thursday's apComms meeting required standing outside in the chill and damp for 15 minutes while staff inspected and photographed one person at a time).
 
Brooke scrutinizes government, judiciary, police, and data-producing agencies such as the Ordnance Survey, and each time finds the same pattern: responsibility for actions cloaked by anonymity; limited access to information (either because the information isn't available or because it's too expensive to obtain); arrogant disregard for citizens's rights. And all aided by feel-good, ass-covering PR and the loss of independent local press to challenge it. In a democracy, she argues, it should be taken for granted that citizens should have a right to get an answer when they ask the how many violent attacks are taking place on their local streets, take notes during court proceedings or Parliamentary sessions, or access and use data whose collection they paid for. That many MPs seem to think of themselves as members of a private club rather than public servants was clearly shown by the five years of stonewalling Brooke negotiated in trying to get a look at their expenses.
 
In reading the book, I had a sudden sense of why electronic voting appeals to these people. It is yet another mechanism for turning what was an open system that anyone could view and audit – it doesn't take an advanced degree to be able to count pieces of paper – into one whose inner workings can effectively be kept secret. That its inner workings are also not understandable to MPs =themselves apparently is a price they're willing to pay in return for removing much of the public's ability to challenge counts and demand answers. Secrecy is a habit of mind that spreads like fungus.
 
We talk a lot about rolling back newer initiatives like the many databases of Blair's and Brown's government, data retention, or the proliferation of CCTV cameras. But while we're trying to keep citizens from being run down by the surveillance state we should also be examining the way government organizes its operations and block the build-out of further secrecy. This is a harder and more subtle thing to do, but it could make the lives of the next generation of campaigners easier.
 
At least one thing has changed in the last 30 years, though: people's attitudes. In 2009, when the scandal over MPs' expenses broke, you didn't hear much about how other qualities meant we should forgive MPs. 
 
Britain wanted *blood*.

Wendy M Grossman

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).