Rue Britannia

From the Magna Carta to Airstrip One

by , August 21, 2013

The detention of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, at Heathrow airport by British "security" thugs has unleashed a media storm, and a political one as well. It has also caused the editor of the Guardian, where Greenwald has been reporting on NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass government spying, to make some revelations of his own that are as shocking, in their own way, as anything Snowden has told us.

In response to the brouhaha, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger related this harrowing story:

"A little over two months ago I was contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach.

"The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: ‘You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.’ There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. … During one of these meetings I asked directly whether the government would move to close down the Guardian’s reporting through a legal route – by going to court to force the surrender of the material on which we were working. The official confirmed that, in the absence of handover or destruction, this was indeed the government’s intention. Prior restraint, near impossible in the US, was now explicitly and imminently on the table in the UK."

Press censorship has been on the table in the UK for quite a while now, at least ever since the "Leveson Report," which proposed a quasi-government agency to oversee the British media. The inquiry was ostensibly begun as a response to the News of the World phone hacking scandal – ironic in view of the British government’s vital role in extending and maintaining the NSA’s massive data grab. Apparently the ethics of the British tabloids weren’t all they should be: naturally, no one ever thought to question the government’s ethics. Britain’s political culture ensures that such a heretical thought would never enter the mind of anyone who matters.

The 2,000-page Leveson report was made public in late 2012, and among its recommendations was the abolition of the Press Complaints Commission – yes, they actually have one – and the creation of a new government bureaucracy that would supposedly be "independent" (albeit not independent of the government). Oh, but of course membership in this union of media and state would be voluntary – except, if a newspaper or television station declined the invitation, it would be subject to exemplary damages if and when it was convicted of unethical behavior, another charming innovation of British law.

The invasion of the Guardian newsroom by police – that’s what it was, although no doubt ever-so-polite in that cold British sort of way – is only the latest incursion by the British state into what remains of the liberty of its people. One of the reasons Russia is so hated by Britain’s political class and much of the media is due to the fact that Cameron’s England is coming to resemble Putin’s decrepit empire. Snowden’s arrival in Russia set off a firestorm of hatred directed at the American whistleblower in the British media – but now that they are seeing their own government act like they imagine Putin would, what do these "human rights" campaigners have to say? (Not that it will mitigate their avid interest in the state of human rights in Russia).

Britain is one of the least free countries in the "Free World" – a place where a tweet that offends some politically correct full-of-themselves bureaucrat can land you in jail. Where a "racist" conversation overheard in a pub can put you behind bars. Where the government has installed CCTV cameras in every conceivable public space – an all-pervasive surveillance system now being programmed to note "suspicious" behavior. Where an Official Secrets Act ensures that whatever horrific things the government is doing will remain in the dark. Where a foolish woman with unpopular and wrong-minded views and a US radio show host who’s an even bigger fool can be kept out of the country on account of their beliefs. Where Christians and others who hold to traditional and now unpopular beliefs about sexuality and the family can be and have been prosecuted for expressing their religious convictions.

The land that gave us the Magna Carta and the English libertarian upsurge of the 17th and 18th centuries is now a parody of George Orwell’s dystopian vision of "Airstrip One," where Big Brother looms behind every bush and the political class lords it over the ever-more-downtrodden proles.

What’s frightening is that, ever since the baton of Anglo world supremacy was passed from London to Washington, shortly after World War II, our own history has limned their degeneration. The Brits have set the pace, with their American cousins following obediently and naively in their wake: from the growth of government’s role in the economy and society to the evolution of social mores away from traditional modes, ideas originating in Perfidious Albion have wound up conquering our shores.

Up until now, at least, what happened to the Guardian is inconceivable here in America – almost. In answer to questions from reporters, a White House deputy spokesman with the novelistic name of Josh Earnest averred: "It’s very difficult to imagine a scenario in which that would be appropriate here."

Difficult but not impossible. Note he didn’t say it would be illegal, although I suppose the Justice Department will have to weigh in on that before we can get a definitive answer. Senator Paul? Your turn

Pressed to condemn the British government’s strong-arm tactics, the by this time not very earnest Mr. Earnest refused to do so. Claiming not to know enough about the incident, he bleated that it’s "hard for me to evaluate the propriety of that."

Here is the spokesman for a country that ceaselessly criticizes other governments’ “human rights violations” around the world, even going so far as to issue annual report cards for every damn two-bit backwater on earth. If the inhabitants of East Shittystan aren’t allowed to see "Sex and the City" on their 1950s television sets, Uncle Sam has something to say about it. Yet when a bunch of British cops barge into a newspaper office to oversee the pointless destruction of computers containing the Snowden files, suddenly this usually oh-so-righteous arbiter of international morality is struck dumb.

As I tweeted to a British defender of his government’s actions – far less politely we had a revolution to rid ourselves of people like you – but I fear he’ll have the last laugh. Because of the historically imitative behavior of our own political class, what’s happening in Merrie Olde England right now prefigures our own future.

Except for the weather, thank God.

If the course of our history since the end of World War II has been to follow in the path of our English first cousins, then the task of libertarians here in the US is to stand athwart that history, yelling: Reverse course! We must make a mighty effort to turn the ship of state around and point it in exactly the opposite direction from where Britain is headed.

Exactly where that is I would describe as Soviet territory. Britain’s entry into the European Union, the social democratic equivalent of the old Soviet Union, ensured the Russification of the British isles. Laws restricting speech are endemic on the continent, and Britain has been a leader in this trend. What’s surprising is that it took this long for the cops to start busting into newsrooms.

"You’ve had your fun, now we want the stuff back." That’s what a completely clueless unnamed British official said to Rusbridger, not realizing that "the stuff" is out there, in the borderless free zone of the Internet. There’s no giving it back: it belongs to the world now.

Perhaps I’m underestimating that official, however, since he’s no doubt perfectly aware the Guardian will have no trouble continuing to report on the Snowden leaks because the paper has a New York office, and the material is already secured elsewhere. Yet in a ritual meaningless in its practical consequences and yet suffused with political significance, Rusbridger eventually agreed to the demand that they take the computers in which the sought-after material was held down to the basement and physically destroy them.

To be clear: the purpose of this seemingly meaningless charade was simply to set a precedent, in practice and in law. In Britain, in the year 2013 A.D., the right of the press to publish was breached – and what is coming through that breach isn’t going to be very pleasant. Do we want to go down that path? The American answer must be an emphatic and quite disgusted no.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

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