by Bella Wallersteiner
It has been nearly 31 years since the Berlin Wall came down to reveal 69 miles of files amassed by the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) as it spied on more than 5.6 million citizens of the former German Democratic Republic. The archive holds films, photographs, recordings of phone conversations, mind-blowingly tedious reports of mundane conversations and interactions between neighbours and even samples of sweat collected by punctilious officers hoping to win a medal or promotion. We have a supercilious and unfounded belief that British citizens would act differently and rise above compliance with an authoritarian state. Do we not cherish individualism, freedom of speech and make fun of our politicians?
Evidence from the first month of lockdown suggests that many of us harbour an inner Stasi: in April the UK Police received 194,000 calls from members of the public snitching on neighbours alleged to have broken lockdown rules by making an unnecessary journey, going for more than one walk a day or checking on a second home. So much for the doughty spirit of British non-conformity and defiant anti-authoritarianism.
More recently, the police arrested 32 protesters at the Resist and Act for Freedom Rally in Trafalgar Square on September 19th. The media focused almost entirely on the lunatic fringe of anti-vaxxers and 5G conspiracy theorists and chose to ignore the majority of the protesters who turned up for a peaceful demonstration with banners and placards proclaiming “This is now Tyranny” and chanting “Freedom!”
Exactly a year ago the Prime Minister delivered a prophetically dystopian speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Mr Johnson extemporised on how robotics, artificial intelligence and the commoditisation of knowledge through Google would inexorably and inevitably lead humanity to sleepwalk into the nightmare of digital authoritarianism: an “antiseptic urban environment” in which every citizen is kept under surveillance, monitored by a “future Alexa… who will be watching you, clucking her tongue and stamping her foot.” Clouds of data will loom oppressively over a human race which has lost control “over how or when the precipitation will take place”. Is now the moment that the hard rain predicted by the Prime Minister is going to fall?
The Coronavirus Act 2020 gives hi-vis jacketed council-employed “Covid marshals” the right to use “reasonable force” to make people self-isolate (the equivalent of giving parking wardens the right to stop, search and arrest motorists for minor traffic offences). Citizens will be fined for not observing NHS Test and Trace edicts or for refusing to stay at home after testing positive. Fines of £1,000 for first offenders will rise to £10,000 for recidivists and this will have the equal and opposite effect of deterring people from getting tested (a surefire way of squashing the sombrero of the second wave of viral transmission). Penalties for reckless disregard of the self-isolation rules start at £4,000: the elasticity of the definition of the word “reckless” stretches from workers going to offices to protesters joining a large gathering. Anyone who “knowingly gives false information” by not denouncing a close contact friend or relative will be fined £1,000 and the same penalty applies to parents who fail to ensure that their children self-isolate.
Evocations of wartime have ranged from “we’re all in this together” and “we’ll send this virus packing” to the cheerily optimistic “it will all be over by Christmas”. At a time when personal freedoms are threatened by the extension of the Coronavirus Act, it is apposite to recall the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914 which was used for to censor the press, introduce rationing, ban kite flying and building bonfires, brought in British Summer Time, watered down beer and imposed pub licensing laws which were only relaxed in November 2005. The Second World War brought The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939 which ceded immense regulatory powers to the government, including provisions
for the apprehension, trial and punishment of persons offending against the Regulations and for the detentions of persons whose detention appears to be expedient to the Secretary of State in the interest of public safety or the defence of the realm
It is worth remembering that the Act was only finally repealed on March 25th 1959, but the last of the Defence Regulations (which included the maintenance of public order) were not lifted until December 31st 1964.
COVID-19 should not be allowed to erode basic liberties and personal freedom. An ever-growing list of public figures are flouting lockdown rules: Margaret Ferrier, SNP MP, travelled between Glasgow and London twice and spoke in Parliament in spite of testing positive for coronavirus. On the day she took the test for COVID-19, Ferrier visited a beauty salon, a gym, and a gift shop and tweeted about visiting several businesses in her constituency. Jeremy Corbyn, former Labour leader, stayed true to his maxim “for the many, not the few” by being photographed at a dinner party for nine, a clear breach of the “rule of six” limit on social gatherings. On the same day, Corbyn’s older brother, Piers, told an anti-mask rally in Trafalgar Square: “there is no justification in any terms for the lockdowns and the Covid rules. They are a complete hoax.”
What are students locked in halls of residence in universities supposed to think when they read about MPs breaking the rules with impunity? Do we really expect young people to adhere to regulations when they are being told that the rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are a huge over-reaction to the actual threat from this pernicious disease? Why should they take any notice of Nicola Sturgeon’s illiberal edict to remain in their student accommodation and not visit their families at home? How can anyone rely on big data when a technical error involving an Excel spreadsheet of laboratory results reached its maximum size and failed to update? This “glitch” led to nearly 16,000 cases of coronavirus going unreported between September 25th and October 2nd. Did it not occur to anyone that the Saturday surprise of 12,872 new cases followed by Sunday’s figure of 22,961 might spread panic and alarm across the UK?
While Storm Alex has given us a soaking over the last few days, there is still time to shelter from the hard rain of digital authoritarianism predicted by the Prime Minister in his inaugural speech to the United Nations. We can and should resist the arrogation of wartime powers and the suspension of individual liberties. The realisation of the Prime Minister’s Orwellian vision of a jackbooted Alexa stamping on a human’s head – forever – might be closer than we think.