Anticipating Keir Starmer’s ascent to the office of Prime Minister, I’m reminded of that great Bob Monkhouse line: “When I said I was going to be a comedian they all laughed. Well, they’re not laughing now!”
As a radical Left-wing schoolboy, Starmer probably envisaged a future when Britain became something like Cuba, but without the weather. Later, as he matured maybe the social-democratic paradise that was Sweden became the model. But, now on the cusp of power if he were to look around the world which society might his gaze alight upon as the model for British society within the next generation? I’m not sure. But my fear is that whatever our potential next Labour Prime Minister aims for, I suspect where we will end up is something dispiritingly like South Africa, but with Chinese characteristics.
The adoption of ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ has had a remarkable effect on the Chinese and world economies over the past 40 years or so. But it’s another set of ‘Chinese characteristics’, this time relating to the ‘surveillance’ society, utilising facial recognition technology, social credit scoring and fiscal cancelling, when allied to South African style social breakdown, that may become the societal model that Britain and many other parts of Europe and the West are destined to follow unless steps are taken to resist this trend.
Contemporary South Africa is characterised by extreme levels of violent crime with an annual homicide rate 40 times greater than the U.K.’s. Over one third of the population is unemployed, with rates among the young even higher.
South African society has always been a two-tier society. The apartheid racial split is still evident, but the simple racial divide has to some extent been overtaken by the emergence of both a black and Asian middle class moving into what were previously exclusively white areas. Increasingly segregation is class based, with the middle-class living in gated compounds or migrating.
In the 30 years since the ANC came to power, the share of GDP going to the poorest 50% of the population has halved. Conversely, the share of GDP going to the wealthiest 0.1% has doubled.
It’s not so different in the U.K. A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice, ‘Two Nations: the state of poverty in the U.K.‘, draws attention to the ever-growing divide between the ‘have’s and have nots’ and the social breakdown that this can lead to. It highlights that many people turn to welfare rather than work and that wages tend to do little to improve people’s financial well-being.
Back in South Africa we find that in addition to a worsening of the social class divide public services have failed to improve. South Africa now is plagued by rolling power cuts, with many households and businesses using petrol generators to keep the lights on. It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee a similar situation in the U.K. with unreliable power provision. Already, people are being paid to switch off their electricity and last winter it was only the mild weather that allowed us to escape power outages.
In South Africa crime, particularly violent crime is endemic. The police have largely withdrawn from many urban areas. In Johannesburg, the commercial centre has largely relocated itself to Sandton, a purpose-built Central Business District, and in the process abandoned the old centre to urban decay.
We see similar patterns beginning to emerge in many European cities. ‘Working from home’ has exacerbated the trend that’s seen the hollowing-out of our cities. Empty shops and offices in city centres have permitted the emergence of tent cities and squatters.
Riots have broken out in Dublin and many other European cities. Islamist inspired stabbings across Europe have lost their ability to shock, though this may, in part be due to the suppression of the details of the story by the mainstream media. As in South Africa, the police in areas of Stockholm, Brussels, Dublin and Paris observe ‘no-go’ areas.
Elon Musk, discussing his motivation to buy Twitter with Joe Rogan, attributed the decision to the social collapse of downtown San Francisco, which he blamed on the widespread adoption of woke ideology. This collapse is more fully explored In a recent UnHerd piece, where Freddie Sayers investigates the causes of San Francisco’s decline. Despite the self-evident problems there are plans to partially ‘defund the police’ with the loss of hundreds of officers. The suspicion must be that the residual police officers will spend their time policing the more ‘well-to-do’ areas while, effectively ‘no-go’ areas will be left to ‘police’ themselves.
Like our haircuts, fashion sense and dance moves, we hit a rut in our late teens or early 20s and never really break out. So, it is with much of our politics. I rather suspect that Keir Starmer in his dreams still hopes that one he’ll wake up and magically we’ve all morphed back into 1980s Sweden, Abba will be number one again and Volvos will be rolling off the production line.
In contemplating the prospect of ‘South Africa with Chinese characteristics’ there are three fundamental questions to ask. Firstly, is it inevitable? Secondly, is it desirable? Thirdly, is there the will to stop or reverse the trend?
Sad to say, but I think unless something is done very soon to control it then it’s inevitable. What’s more, there’s no obvious sign that many people either recognise it as a threat or, if they do, are minded to fight against it.
The surveillance society is not going back in its box anytime soon. Let’s look at a few examples. Facial recognition technology is already widely deployed. It makes policing easier and cheaper; it’s here to stay. Likewise, electronic payments. Like it or not, cash is disappearing fast, and unlike cash, electronic payments always leave a trail. Stephen Timms MP in a recent speech in Parliament highlighted new legislation that will allow Government to look inside your bank account. Your phone tracks you, ANPR cameras track you. Your spending and viewing history tracks you. The surveillance society is here, we’re already living with it.
Fifteen-minute cities appear to be coming fast, but even without them various forms of ‘zonal’ control allow the authorities to track people in real time via mobile phone and facial recognition of ANPR cameras.
The second question is the desirability of the surveillance society. The argument in favour is always the same: “If you haven’t got anything to hide, then what’s the problem?” But, of course, surveillance of private citizens by the state is the antithesis of what the role of the state should be. The state should be subject to the will of the people, serving individuals in pursuing their goals, yet increasingly every facet of our lives is subject to state oversight.
The key drivers that allow this continual extension of the surveillance state are cost and fear.
Let’s take ‘cost’. People want their streets policed. Installing cameras, deploying drones and tracking vehicles is much cheaper and more cost-effective than deploying police officers to do the same job. Doing an electronic search of people’s bank accounts for anomalous payments is far cheaper and more effective than deploying tax inspectors. Road pricing by the mile driven is far more targeted and opens up the possibility of using the price mechanism to manage congestion, but it requires real-time vehicle tracking. All these things can happen and so, we must assume, will happen.
The surveillance state inevitably changes the relationship between the governors and the governed. In the spirit of Churchill, his advice to ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ was very much taken to heart during the Covid period, which saw a remarkable extension of state power and the diminution of the ability of the individual to resist that power.
With regard to ‘fear’, Covid gave us a glimpse of how ‘nudge’ units and the control of the news and social media can instil totally irrational levels of fear in the vast majority of the population. In the same way that it was relatively straightforward to whip up paranoia over Covid, so we see the same tactics being used over Net Zero. Who’s to say similar tactics won’t be used over ‘terrorism’ or the threat of the ‘ultra-Right’.
Enlarge the state and you create the need for yet more state resources to both carry out those additional tasks and manage conformity of the population. The budget deficit is running at about 5% of GDP as we continue to pile up debt and reduce the ability of the State to direct additional resources where they’re needed. Interest payments on U.K. borrowings are running at about 10% of Government spending. As an item of expenditure, debt interest payments run second only to the NHS!
There is an obvious need for the state to do less but it keeps doing more.
If the Government can incite enough fear of viruses, climate change and terrorism people can be persuaded that ever greater levels of surveillance are indeed for their own good.
Unless the erosion of freedoms can move up the political agenda I see no prospect of the slide towards South Africa with Chinese characteristics not continuing. Organisations such as the Free Speech Union and Big Brother Watch, in addition to the citizen groups that emerged during the pandemic such as UsForThem, have worked hard to highlight the growing problem. However, neither Labour nor the Conservatives put personal freedoms front and centre of their agenda. Encouragingly, Reform has a lot to say about personal freedoms. But if it’s only Reform raising the issue it’s too easy for the mainstream media to dismiss personal freedom as a minority interest of the ‘far-Right’, with their usual smear.
The obvious requirement is for someone or something to articulate the inherent danger of the loss of personal freedoms. We’re very much in ‘boiling frog’ territory and unless many more people can be awakened to the importance of what’s being lost then it’s only a matter of time before we discover that our society looks like South Africa with Chinese characteristics. Not a prospect I relish for my children.