Philip Pullman on the collapse of personal liberty in the UK

A reader writes, "Philip Pullman writing in today's (London) Times on the state of the UK, 'to mark the Convention on Modern Liberty'. Lyrical, eloquent and compelling. Sent chills down my spine. I've read lots of articles on the increasing loss of our civil liberties, but the style and tone really set this one apart. It's literary without being fictional, and that makes it all the more effective in its message."

Are we conscious of being watched, as we sleep? Are we aware of an ever-open eye at the corner of every street, of a watching presence in the very keyboards we type our messages on? The new laws don't mind if we are. They don't think we care about it.

We want to watch you day and night

We think you are abject enough to feel safe when we watch you

We can see you have lost all sense of what is proper to a free people

We can see you have abandoned modesty

Some of our friends have seen to that

They have arranged for you to find modesty contemptible

In a thousand ways they have led you to think that whoever does not want to be watched must have something shameful to hide

We want you to feel that solitude is frightening and unnatural

We want you to feel that being watched is the natural state of things

One of the pleasant fantasies that consoles us in our sleep is that we are a sovereign nation, and safe within our borders. This is what the new laws say about that:

We know who our friends are

And when our friends want to have words with one of you

We shall make it easy for them to take you away to a country where you will learn that you have more fingernails than you need

It will be no use bleating that you know of no offence you have committed under British law

It is for us to know what your offence is

Angering our friends is an offence

Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms


  1. I’m left more confused than anything else. Not sure that turgid, confusing prose is going to help the cause.

  2. Quite reasonably, people don’t expect privacy outside or in public spaces. And it’s hard to say that cameras interfere with solitude, when the essence of solitude is not interacting with other people. Now, if you’re being monitored at home or in, say, a restroom, it’s a different story.

  3. It struck me this morning, what if this is some kind of knee jerk subconscious reaction from politicians whose lives – more than ever – are permanently under the 24-hour media spotlight and microscope of ever more informed public criticism.

    As the privacy of those high in public office is reduced to almost nothing, perhaps on some level their attitude is – well if we have to live like this, so must you. If it is acceptable for us (and our families) then so must it be for you. Or rather, ha! See how you like it.

    Just a thought, certainly not a justification!

  4. Nicol, I don’t think it’s a reaction to media scrutiny so much as what I’d call ‘evolutionary opportunism’.

    Technological developments have created a new body for the politicians to inhabit – longer, more intrusive tentacles; more of them; greater congnitive functionality (pattern-matching databases and the like).

    The authoritays are growing into that body, flexing their new muscles, exploring their new capabilities, stretching into and exploring the extent of their reach.

    Morality, ethics, a sense of what is right and good to do and what is good not to do (in a ‘liberal democracy’ or, y’know, just as human beings doing unto others) are supposed to be the restraining factors, but since when do the sort of people who gravotate toward power, shift and bend to whatever policy is necessary for them to get into power (or repay those who keep them in power) hold to anything, much less principles or an ethical compass?

    “We want you to feel that being watched is the natural state of things [and that to] not want to be watched [means you] must have something shameful to hide,” is spot on.

  5. I guess George Mason was right when he said, “To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”

  6. This is one tough issue. Isn’t it the first priority of government to watch over the safety of its citizens? Yet nobody wants the government to “watch over” them literally. Shades of 1984! But maybe it’s inevitable in modern society. It might streamline the justice system to have video of everything that goes on in the city, and would probably deter a lot of crime, but it sure feels like our privacy is being invaded. Maybe we’re just gonna have to get used to it. Eek.

  7. My theory is that the reason the general public (in the most arm-waving of generalisations) don’t really give a flying one about such matters is that none of it really impinges on their lives in a noticeable way. Very few Brits feel that they’re living in a police state; their daily lives go on in much the same way they always have done. (Hark… the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance…)

  8. Can anyone recommend a good, objective primer on the specific issues referenced here? I wants to edumacate myself.


  9. Now the Google cache has apparently been rendered gone. Curiouser and curiouser; one wonders why this article was so incendiary it seems to have been expunged.

  10. I sent a request to the Time Online customer support hours ago, but have seen nothing in reply.

    Thanks, Rainyrat, for digging out the cache page.

  11. My complaint to this line of thinking is that it would take like five people to monitor just one person so closely, fifteen for day and night. Suppose I write some inflammatory things on this message board and that tips off the CIA computer. They would have to waste hundreds of man-hours just to figure out that I’m a dead-end. I apologize to the guy who reads my email for being so irrelevant, by the way.

  12. I think Hanlon’s razor could apply here: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
    Having said that, I’ve grabbed a copy of the article, as it seems to be missing from Google’s cache again. Is there such a thing as being BoingBoinged?

  13. I don’t suppose today’s Timesonline home page: ‘Brown pins his hopes of recovery on Obama’ with a photo of the happy couple might of shunted Pullman’s piece?

  14. I’m another guy who mailed to them. Around 15:00 UTC today got a reply from their customer service saying:

    Dear Times Online User, Thank you for your email and for bringing this error to our attention. Our technical team are currently working to rectify this matter as soon as possible. We do apologise for any inconvenience caused and thank you for your patience. [signature and employee name snipped]

  15. Poster #29. The article is still not online. You should email them again. It seems to me that The Times were persuaded to remove this article by higher powers.

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