What Kill the bill protestors object to may not be a curb on their freedoms so much as a limit to their privilege.
The Kill the bill protests this month against a proposal that would grant police extra powers to curb mass demonstrations reveals a peculiar contradiction: thousands of people concerned about their freedom to resist the powers-that-be.
None of them up in arms over mass surveillance tactics used by the same powers-that-be to monitor protesters and everyone else.
Only weeks ago, after all, was it revealed that demonstrators are spied upon by flying drones, then identified afterwards using facial-recognition software. As it is, the U.K. has more surveillance cameras per capita than even China.
There is something particularly British in the difference of concern shown over a transparent form of control that applies to everyone equally, versus a tacitly undemocratic one that affects mainly the general public.
Social control of the overt kind has long been out of fashion in Britain, in any case.
It was the Victorians who practiced capital punishment, who enforced church attendance as a way of keeping the rabble out of middle-class parks, and who architecturally segregated low-income neighborhoods.
The legacy of those instruments remains today, unsurprisingly. It’s still easy to identify class meridians among London neighborhoods, just by looking at a map: Where there is a railroad, there is nearly always a stark contrast on either side.
But the real legacy of that era is of course the class “system,” which was never an organized racket, as people often imagine, but an opaque manner of governance in which people with certain entitlements are permitted to evade ordinary rules.
Evidence of this is in the subtle influence that the Queen’s legal advisors have on national legislation (as revealed recently by The Guardian), as well as that wielded by obscure middle men, called clerks, who determine which barrister argues what case in the courts, as well as in the nation’s notoriously vague stipulations for identifying owners of companies.
In such a system, rules are unnecessary, since tacit social contracts among interested parties ensure that nothing need be overtly declared.
Privilege is so much easier to safeguard when it is privately managed, after all, although it’s much easier to lose when exposed for what it is.
Such was the case when Boris Johnson’s senior advisor, Dominic Cummings, illegally travelled to a secondary residence during a nationwide virus quarantine, which he himself had helped to impose.
The fact that he flouted the rules might not have been so bad. A nation’s rules aren’t the product of axiomatic legal precepts, anyway, but of instinctive notions concerning what is permissible and what is not, and one thing that is generally permissible in the U.K. is to find some way of ignoring the rules.
It was probably the frankness of his sense of entitlement that caught people off-guard: “There is no regulation covering the situation I found myself in”, he said, disingenuously side-stepping the undiscriminating nature of his own injunction.
The whole situation stands in stark contrast to the U.S., where the law is seen as an instrument of clarification and control, and where society generally sympathizes with efforts to establish absolute rules, however naïve or unfeasible. (One idea, perennially popular, is a “flat” tax that would apply to everyone, equally, regardless of income.)
Coupled with that view is an expectation of unequivocal enforcement, reflected in levels of police violence unheard of in the U.K.
Britain’s famously unarmed police are seen more as guardians of social norm, according to a study by the London School of Economics.
The police exist to field noise complaints, for example — although there again, comprehensive enforcement is evidently non-existent, so people don’t even bother to call the police, since they’ve learned to expect nothing of it, according to a report by the government’s Environmental Committee.
More so than functioning governance, what the British may actually cherish, perhaps, is the right to safeguard one’s own exclusivity, however meagre.
A hallmark of a class “system,” after all, is that greater privilege confers fewer controls, which in turn signifies higher status.
The proposal currently underway to curb demonstrations is seen as a response to disruptions caused two years ago by people amassing themselves under the name Extinction Rebellion. These individuals belong to the educated middle class, largely speaking. In opposing restrictions to their ability to congregate as they see fit, they evoke universal rights to free speech and assembly, and they have a point.
However, it’s true as well that the law would be one step closer towards a view -unequivocal, overt, transparent- that disruption and property damage caused by university students in the name of a political cause is not any different than disruption and damage caused by anyone else in the name of nothing in particular.
And that may be the real source of discomfort for those who object.