02/04/2013 17:51 BST | Updated 02/06/2013 06:12 BST

Are We Sleepwalking Into a Totalitarian Society?

It seems to me that 'giving offence' is now one of the most heinous criminal charges on the statute book. If this carries on, we will need to redraft Voltaire's famous saying: "I don't agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" to read something different


Totalitarian rule is defined as a political system in which the state holds total authority over the society and seeks to control all aspects of public and private life whenever necessary. Most people would probably laugh at the idea that the UK might become a totalitarian society - are we not a beacon of democracy in a world of corrupt and authoritarian government? However, if we are not careful we might easily sleepwalk into a form of totalitarian society by accident and neglect. There are many themes to consider.

In recent years we have seen a growth in the powers that government exerts over its citizens. Many examples of this can be quoted including:

  • The massive increase in the use of CCTV,
  • The attempts to introduce identify cards into the UK,
  • The retention by police forces of DNA details of those without any criminal conviction,
  • The record number of imprisonable criminal offences created by secondary legislation without any debate by Parliament
  • Anti-terrorism laws - a former law lord, Thomas Bingham commented that "the real threat to society is not from terrorism, but from laws such as these."

The list goes on and on. In 2009, the Conservative MP, David Davies, resigned his parliamentary seat to fight a by election on the issue of erosion of civil liberties. He produced a report which identified 50 measures since 1998 that eroded civil liberties. Davies commented: "We cannot actually trust politicians or the process of politics to preserve liberties. Our liberties must not go unprotected in the way they have for the last 10 years."

Then we look at our electoral system. In recent years the proportion of those not voting at a general election has risen and polls indicate increasing dis-enchantment with politicians. These politicians shed crocodile tears at the low turn-out and then turn their minds to planning how to win the next election. The same politicians also increasingly ignore the views of voters and impose their own ideological ideas sometimes not even contained in their election manifesto. In pre-war Germany the Nazi Party gained only two-three per cent of the vote during the 1920s. - never more. Then in 1929, history intervened with the "Great Economic Depression." The situation in Germany went from worse" to "horrible. The country was completely in chaos. Food riots and pitched battles in the street every night. Hitler's twisted promises offered Germans a solution to their despair. The Nazis gained power out of desperation on the part of the electorate. Given the current economic conditions in the UK, who would say that could never happen here?

Let us consider two more recent developments. Firstly, there is the issue of a free press which is often regarded as a bulwark against totalitarianism. Currently we have the on-going debate over the Levenson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the UK press following the recent phone hacking scandal. The recently published Levenson Report made recommendations for a new, independent, body (to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission) which would be recognised by the state through new laws. Since the publication of the Levenson Report there has been a huge row between the main political parties and society at large about the extent to which press regulation should have some form of statutory underpinning.

I suggest there are two key questions to consider here:

  • Are there not other ways through existing legislation that the victims of phone hacking could gain redress? I think the answer to this must be yes although this would not necessarily satisfy certain "celebrities" (who have been very active in calling for statutory regulation) and who would prefer for the press not to investigate some of their more sensational activities.
  • Through the creation of statutory press regulation, do we really want to hand over power to regulate the press to politicians, which, in reality, means handing over such power to the Government of the day? Consider the many scandals in recent years, involving politicians; lying (Chris Huhne), being paid for asking parliamentary questions (Neil Hamilton), inappropriate business relationships (Liam Fox) and over-claiming expenses (a large proportion of MPs and some peers). In the light of these and other events, can we really be sure that these people wouldn't use the statutory press regulation process to muzzle a free press trying to report such mis-demeanours.

In the light of the above, I think we must see any form of statutory press regulation as something to be considered very seriously by all citizens (not just the three party leaders) and not thrown away lightly.

Secondly, there is the issue of free speech. This is one of the great freedoms of UK society which is now being threatened by the sin of 'giving offence'. In a recent court case the judge decided that the Mayor of London did not exceed his powers in banning an advertisement on London buses which said "Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get over it". The judge said that some people might be offended by this advert and so the ban was legitimate. However, the same judge seemed to suggest that an earlier advert stating "Some people are gay - get over it" might also have caused offence and might also have been banned had it come to court. It seems to me that "giving offence" is now one of the most heinous criminal charges on the statute book. If this carries on, we will need to redraft Voltaire's famous saying: "I don't agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it" to read something different. Perhaps the following might suffice: "I don't agree with what you say, it offends me and I will take you to court to stop you saying it".

Where do we draw the line? Can vegetarians take meat eaters to court for giving offence by talking about the merits of eating meat or can Labour Party members take Conservative Party members to court for giving offence by promulgating Tory policies? The mind boggles at the potential scope of this.

The above trends of increasing state interference, a crumbing electoral system, the loss of a free press and loss of freedom of speech are grave threats to our democratic system which we would be wise to recognise. It is illusory to think that our democratic system is secure and will last for ever. Throughout the whole of human history some countries have only had democratic systems of government for a couple of centuries while others have never had it. Yet others again have had democracy and lost it. Democracy is very vulnerable and is being gradually lost in the UK - be warned.