Saturday, 14 November 2009

Are You Free, Mr Humphries?

I came across this question recently on an Internet forum: "What's better - a regulated society for the benefit of the whole, or a society free of regulations so individuals can do as they please?"

As a person living in today's Britain, it's a subject that's often uppermost in my mind. We have a lot of regulations in this country - thanks partly to our membership of the EU, partly to vociferous lobby groups and partly to (some) people's belief that if you only pass enough legislation, then every one of our problems can be regulated away.

Of course, it doesn't actually work like that. The law of unforseen consequences applies here, just as it does in other aspects of life. An example is the recent case of two policewomen who worked at the same police station, and looked after each other's children while the other was on shift. In Britain you have to be registered to be a childminder, so even though no money was involved, the two women had actually broken the law. A neighbour reported the two women, and they were told they would have to make alternative arrangements or face prosecution.

It's incidents like this which make me believe that Britain is no longer a free society. Or put it this way, we are well on the way to that unhappy state although thankfully, we haven't reached the nadir experienced by people in - say - Hitler's Germany or Stalinist Russia. But what is it about these regimes that is absent in Britain, and could we end up going the same way?

Hard-line totalitarian regimes like the Third Reich or the Soviet Union relied on a relentless surveillance culture and a willingness on the part of ordinary citizens to report their neighbours for real or imagined infractions. If the story about the policewomen is anything to go by, it sounds as though British society already has that box well and truly ticked.

Another feature of totalitarian regimes is the "need" for a scapegoat (the Jews, the bourgeoisie) that the regime can use as a focus for people's discontent. If all the blame can be placed on the scapegoat, then it provides a handy distraction and absolves individuals (and governments) from any responsibility for their own actions. Thankfully, I don't think the UK has reached that point yet, and I hope we never do.

Is that the whole story though? Or are there other elements which are present in the hard line regimes, but not (as yet) in Britain? Well, I think I've nailed one. In a totalitarian set-up, you lose the right NOT to have to subscribe to whatever ideology the regime is peddling: not to sing the party song, not to go to rallies, not to send your kids to Hitler Youth meetings (or their equivalent) and not to join the Party in order to get a place at university or a good job. If this sounds like an interesting concept, read more here.

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