View from Brussels: Britain's core value should be freedom
At the moment, Britain feels like a bossy boots place. Theresa May should tread carefully if she tries to regulate the internet, writes Pelle Neroth
Theresa May made a gamble to hold an election; it has led, as we all know, to a hung parliament.
Britain’s future is more uncertain than ever. I think the vote in a good way represents the public’s irritation that their messages are not getting across. I don’t think the public want a hard Brexit and are irritated at the continuing failure of the Westminster elites to have a long-term strategy to deal with demographic transformation. I also believe the British people want a lot of things, other things, to be up for discussion in the creation of a new post-EU society. Hard Brexit seems to offer just more of the same thing – the whole process driven by economic elites who would stand to benefit from an austerity economy, zero-hours contracts, an offshore economy floating off the coast of Europe – despite May’s promises of a fairer, more egalitarian Britain.
There is a disaffection with the mainstream media and maybe some of the (youth) vote was a poke against the BBC – even I, not a Labour supporter, thought the corporation was biased against Corbyn. And how many people out there saw coverage in the American and other publications about alleged connections between MI5 and MI6 and the Manchester bomber and were annoyed at the failure of the British press to pick up on this in a big way? It is hard to know. Personally I think that, if Britain is entering a new era, both the intelligence agencies and the media need a shake-up. The latter transformation of course can’t be state-directed, but now that we have the internet as a distribution mechanism for news, why should anyone listen to what media oligarchs think anyway? It is striking that you get much more diversity of opinion in the American media where the Deep State role is much more openly questioned in the political campaign to remove Trump, whereas the British media seem to show much more loyalty to and circumspection about whatever it is the intelligence agencies do. America has the First Amendment. Britain has D-Notices.
I think another contributing problem to the Conservative election fiasco was Theresa May’s unwillingness to enter into a debate outside carefully choreographed, closed sessions. That’s anti-democratic. And ironically maybe many voters thought that Jeremy Corbyn, having survived the steel bath of British tabloid hatred as well as mutiny from his own Blairites, may actually be the stronger man to confront the 27 nations of the EU on the other side of the negotiating table at the Brexit talks.
Since this is an engineering magazine, let’s look at the IT technology angle – Theresa May’s proposal to regulate the internet if she became Prime Minister again. If Britain stands for anything it is freedom and freedom of thought – many Europeans actually think so, still think, like Voltaire, that Britain is the home of freedom, even though Britain has actually been in recent years the truncheon state par excellence at Brussels Home Affairs gatherings.
I know I made a call for greater equality in Britain in a recent article, and that is true, but liberty is as important, maybe more so. It should be the core value in the new Britain. But I am sad to say I think Britain is becoming gradually a more authoritarian country. Political correctness has harvested many victims, damaged Britain’s intellectual climate. What about that ridiculous case of a man being jailed for years for wrapping a slice of bacon around a mosque door handle as a tasteless prank? The man died later in prison, a story that went virtually unnoticed. Or the sacking of a popular LBC presenter for making a tweet. I mean, for God’s sake. Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese and others have all railed at the censorious climate in Britain.
What struck me on my latest trip to Britain was the Orwellian presence of barking tannoys everywhere: for instance, telling you to not smoke in the hospital every five minutes. You hear that journalists at certain regional press organisations get the length of their toilet breaks recorded – God forbid if they failed to provide value for money for their employers. And of course, Britain is the CCTV capital of the world, not that it did anything to stop the three terrorist attacks in the last few months. None of this control state stuff comes from Brussels, I am afraid. It’s home-grown.
And now we have Theresa May’s proposals to regulate the internet. It is understandable in the context of wanting to stop recruitment videos from ISIS and such things. But there is another story about those Islamist attacks. If some journalists are to be believed, and I trust Mark Curtis, the historian and journalist, there has been a historic relationship between the British government and Islamist movements.*
They’ve been used as auxiliaries for decades in order to topple Middle Eastern regimes – often secular ones – the British simply didn’t take a liking to, Gaddafi being the latest one.**
Of course this is not trumpeted in radio or the daily press, and one fears that if Theresa May’s proposals to control the internet against Islamist radicals were realised, would the dragnet not also affect such free journalism as there is – journalism for instance that investigates embarrassing issues like Mark Curtis’s work? And while we are on the topic of censorship, do tell me, please, how the regulation of esoteric varieties of pornography would make Britain more secure from terrorists? Maybe, once a Home Secretary, always a Home Secretary.
I think the British people want more sovereignty for their nation but also more sovereignty in their lives – too much of their daily work is demeaning and without greater purpose. For many, perhaps most, people rampant consumerism doesn’t supply a spiritual alternative. There are positive feelings out there among the general public: a peaceful nationalism and a great sense of common decency and a British pride and solidarity. I also think that the British would like to feel that they live in a country that is a beacon of liberty.
I don’t see a lot of interesting ideas coming out of Britain the moment – my media consumption is voracious and comes from many countries, but seldom seems to have the co.uk internet suffix. The London-based conservative broadsheet newspaper my British father reads contains just silly articles about how totalitarian the Europeans are sandwiched between advertisements for garden furniture and holidays in Tuscany. What struck me about last visit was how life seemed dank and parochial. One wonders if it’s because of the blanket supplied by – well, decades of various subtle thought control mechanisms.
British government: Do whatever you have to do to combat Islamic extremism – you could start by ceasing to meddle in the Middle East. But keep the internet free. It is the greatest creation of our time. Don’t build the Great Internet Wall of Britain, Mrs May.