The words “Police State” are thrown about a lot. People often say that we live in a police state. Others, myself included, would say that we are certainly headed that way. But what do the words actually mean? Well here is what the dictionary says about it:
Police State: A political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures. (From the Merriam-Webster dictionary.)
So do we live in a police state? Lets look at some evidence. I made a long list of areas that the government, past and present, has been very authoritarian about. Some in particular stood out to me as indicative of a police state.
- 28 day / 14 day detention without trial
- Control orders – house arrest with no charges
- Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBO) – force people to refrain from behaviour that is not illegal
- Dispersal Zones – give power to the police to order people to leave an area
- Restrictions on protest around parliament
- Kettling of protesters and violent attacks by police create a chilling effect on the will to protest
- Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) taking photographs of protesters
- Coercion of protesters into giving personal details with the threat of arrest if they don’t, and twisting the law to allow data to be kept.
- Attempts to force a certain route and timetable on protest marches
- Spying on protesters by undercover policemen, their involvement in and encouragement of criminal acts, providing resources and ideas for protests and in the use of sex to gain trust
- The involvement of a secretive private unaccountable profit-making government-grant-receiving business, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in the above and in forming government policy and spying on the public.
- The ability of the police to kill and get away with it, particularly Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson
- Harassment of photographers by police and new laws restricting photography of policemen and in some public spaces
- Keeping asylum seekers and illegal immigrants locked up for years without charge in detention centres
- Encouraging the public to spy on and report their neighbours for suspicious behaviour such as taking photographs or owning two mobile phones
- CCTV cameras in all public places, and Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras that track vehicles nationwide
- The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIP act) 2000 makes it punishable with a five year prison sentence to withhold an encryption key even if the data would incriminate the key holder. The only known use has been on a paranoid schizophrenic.
- The RIP Act has also granted spying and snooping powers to local authorities.
Social and economic interference
In addition to all the examples of government control of political life which I have already detailed, there are also the economic and social factors. Our government is very keen to change the way that the public behave through the use of tax. In particular they use this method on petrol and other fuels, on alcoholic drinks and cigarettes. They also plan to introduce a charge to couples that make use of the Child Support Agency when splitting up. Since there often is no choice but to go through the CSA this amounts to a tax on splitting up in the eyes of many and is seen as a government attempt to make people stay married. There has in the past been a married couples tax allowance which some see as doing a similar job. The government is also known to use Nudge Theory to try to change our behaviour. They also want to censor our internet connections by default to remove pornography. (Extreme pornography was made illegal in 2009.) Some of these things are specific to a Conservative government, but most of them apply to all governments that we have had.
When I wrote down this list I was staggered by the length of it. I had expected a few minor items, not this many. The examples on this list add up to our rights being systematically abused and removed for the benefit of those in power and those who chose to serve them, and to force on all a moral code accepted by only some. Surprisingly, in light of all that I have detailed here I do not think that we have a police state yet, but we do have a highly authoritarian legacy of laws from the last government and the current government does not look to be changing much of it.
So what does a full-blown police state actually look like if we don’t have one? Belarus is probably the most horrific example from recent months. When Lukashenko appeared to have won the last election the people were not happy. There were riots outside parliament. The police shot and beat up rioters. Then they arrested all of the opposition leaders and all the protesters. They tracked down people that were there by taking location information from the mobile phone networks. Even the children of opposition leaders were not safe and one child was taken away from family by the government. That is how bad a police state can get. More info: Link 1 Link 2 Link 3
We are not in a situation like that of Belarus, nor is it likely to happen any time soon. Nevertheless, we should be wary of this slow-but-increasing erosion of our rights and civil liberties. Through the last decade the public has been encouraged to be afraid of “terrorists” so that governments may pass whatever laws they want for their own convenience. This masks the cancellation, selling off and privatisation of our public services. It seems that many people in our society actually want this level of authoritarian control from their government and with the level of governmental and police control, we could very easily cross the line into a police state. We must stamp it out now before that happens.
This article is also available in a longer version.