Whereas I usually write these columns in Texas, this week I am visiting the UK. The last time I lived here permanently “Macarena” was still on the radio. It’s been over sixteen years since I got on the flight to Moscow that launched my world travels, and it’s starting to feel like a long, long time - a sensation exacerbated by the many changes that have occurred in Britain over the last decade and a half.
For example: in 1999 Scotland, my homeland, acquired a devolved parliament, stuffed like all parliaments with witless mediocrities and self-important dullards. That was a big change. And here’s another one: in 2004 Poland and assorted other Eastern European countries acceded to the EU and suddenly many, many thousands of people from the erstwhile Eastern Bloc arrived, searching for work.
And yet, neither the Scottish parliament nor the UK’s huge Slavic diaspora bother me in the slightest. I live too far away from Scotland’s political class to worry about their shenanigans; and as for Poles and Slovaks et al, well I’ve spent a lot of time in Slavic countries, and those folk are A-OK by me.
The most substantial changes are less obvious. For instance, when I was a boy, it was a common boast in the UK that our police were unarmed. At most, they carried a funny stick for beating miscreants with. We Britons were proud of this.
Then one year I came back from Russia to see cops hanging about Edinburgh’s central rail station with automatic weapons. I remember thinking: “When did that become the norm? Did we discuss this?” A week later some cops in London shot an unfortunate Brazilian in the head on the grounds that he was running in a suspicious manner - or something like that.
Now that was real change. Politicians claim the guns are for our safety, but I confess I preferred the days when police simply carried funny sticks for beating miscreants with.
A bigger change still, and probably the one that disturbs me the most, is the transformation of Britain into a weird, totally incompetent surveillance state. The statistics vary, but there is something like one camera for every sixteen people in the UK, and the country reportedly has 20 percent of the world’s closed-circuit cameras. That’s more than China, which has a lot more people, and is, you know, an authoritarian one party state.
When these cameras started popping up in the ‘80s and ‘90s I disliked the intrusion into my privacy. I was skeptical then, as I am now, that they did much to stop crime, or that they were often much use after the fact. I didn’t think the “privacy-for-alleged-security” trade-off was worth it, and since I resented being spied on I would ostentatiously pick my nose or give my unseen observer the finger whenever I spotted a camera. If I did that today I’d be excavating my cranium and waving my middle digit around more or less the minute I stepped out the door.
I’ve long been baffled as to how we allowed ourselves to become the most watched people in the world, since Britain has an ancient tradition of political freedom. The Magna Carta, which limited the powers of kings, was signed in 1215. And yet hardly anybody seems bothered about mass spying. Perhaps most people have faith that the government and police will not overstep the mark, and will always be very reasonable and “British” about all this surveillance.
But it was a Briton, George Orwell, who wrote “1984”- the key book about totalitarianism and the police state. And I was thinking about him this week as I took a walk through a rough part of town where all kinds of skullduggery occurs on a daily basis. There were surveillance cameras mounted on tall poles, and signs encouraging the neighbors to inform on each other. Of course, this being the UK, they were only being asked to inform on those who allowed their pets to poop on the grass and not, for instance, on the activities of drug dealers or rapists - but even so I found this very unsettling: “Big Brother is watching your dog poop.”
Now I admit that this is a really, really rubbish version of a police state, watered down to the point of absurdity. But I’d suggest that informing over dog poop is the thin end of the wedge, and that it is alarming that in Britain the police are now working to make the act of anonymously snitching on your neighbors socially acceptable. The type of person who secretly denounces his neighbor over little things would, I am absolutely certain, eagerly denounce him or her over many other things given the opportunity. These nasty sneaks are not the type of people any society should be empowering.
In Texas, my neighbor’s four or five cats all crap on my lawn frequently, and while it is mildly annoying I would never think of calling the cops. More to the point, the cops would ridicule me if I did. And I prefer it that way- which is one reason I am glad that next week I shall be writing this column in Texas, and not the UK.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.