Golfing for cats

The British humorist Alan Coren was told the books that sold best were those about golfing, cats and Nazis. The result was a book of short stories entitled Golfing for Cats. You can see from the cover picture how he fitted in the Third Reich.

My favorite story from the collection is ‘Owing to circumstances beyond our control, 1984 has been unavoidably detained’. The idea is that a British totalitarian state would never work. How could it, when nothing else does?

For example, one morning Winston Smith notices his telescreen is not watching him and tries to call Rentabrother Telehire to complain. When he rings up directory enquires to get Rentabrother’s phone number the operator is reluctant to give him it because she wants to leave early; and besides, she has just done her nails.

When Smith finally gets a number he is first connected to the Eastasian Cats Home, then a Samoan ironmonger.

When Smith is arrested and taken to Room 101 the secret police are unable to produce any rats to torment him [no deliveries since last December], but finally manage to produce a wheezy old stoat which sits on the floor, not bothering Smith at all.

This might seem a pretty accurate picture of Britain in 2008. The Labour government has given us all the trappings of a police state, but is totally incompetent. The Home Office, which is our version of the Ministry of Love, has been declared ‘unfit for purpose’ by its own minister. Unenforceable laws have been passed. Huge databases have been created, and then shown to be insecure.

So its going to be ok then? We might have carelessly given up our privacy and civil liberties, but it will not matter. The state will always be too incompetent to do us any real harm.

Not really, because a lot of the security apparatus does work all too well. CCTV cameras are everywhere. When we drive our cars we are tracked by a network of ANPR cameras. Like Winston Smith we have devices which keep us under constant surveillance, but we call them mobile phones instead of telescreens [and we pay for them ourselves, Orwell never thought of that refinement].

British citizens can be dragged out of their homes and off to a jail in America without any appeal to a British court. Habeas corpus has been suspended. The Home Secretary can issue letters de cachet. Not one person in a thousand has even heard of the new data retention law [thanks British media], much less understands the enormous power it gives the state. A Privacy International report has ranked the UK alongst Russia, China and North Korea in the extent of state surveillance.

All we are so far missing is someone to put this surveillance apparatus to use. However, we can be certain that a British Lord of the Files will eventually emerge to make use of all the surveillance data that is being collected. Though they will probably be more a Hoover or a Fouche, than a Putin, and will act through some political puppet so that we never know his or her name. It would be the British way that our real ruler would not call himself ‘Supreme Leader for Life’, but instead be chairman of some obscure but all powerful Cabinet Office committee. If we look at the often bizarre events of the Blair years perhaps this person is already in post.

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