Britain: Land of the Cowardly

Watching from the UK, America’s gun control debate seems bizarre, archaic, outlandish and fascinating. Like most progressives, I come down firmly on the side of greater gun control; but I’m not American, and don’t claim a right to participate in the decision making. But I do claim my right to help influence the decision as best I can. America’s guns aren’t just America’s problem.

They leak out, fuelling the Mexican and Central American drug war. And in buying so many guns, Americans have greatly increased the size of the global small arms industry, bringing down gun prices and creating a wealthy industry with immense lobbying power that can be used to modify the will of the people. A gun manufactured in Russia is as likely to be sold to an American consumer as to the Russian police. Without legal weapons in America, guns would be less numerous and more expensive globally. Wars in poor countries would be more difficult to fund, if only marginally.

And the “debate” over whether guns lead to an increase in violence is laughable. International data are now available at the click of a Google button. Any American can now quickly compare the murder rate in their country with that in any other, and discover that America is far more violent than any similarly developed country. America has 4% of the world’s population, yet the vast majority of mass shootings happen in the United States – more than 200 since 2006.

The pro-gun “liberty” argument is deeply flawed. The prevalence of guns tends to discourage, rather than encourage, free speech – as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gabrielle Giffords and many others have inadvertently demonstrated. With so many guns, it takes a brave person to stand up in a public place and espouse a controversial idea. Minority viewpoints are violently suppressed in the United States, usually not by the state, but by lone men with access to fire-power. One of the greatest limitations to the First Amendment is the Second.

And yet, watching the arguments from the UK, I also experience a genuine and strong respect for the importance that many Americans attach to liberty. Britain pays lip service to liberty, and yet this country appears to almost completely lack the libertarian attitudes that exist on both the left and right of American politics. Britons are far more accepting of state intervention in our lives than Americans, in many forms. The merest hint of a threat will trigger a moral panic in the media, and Britons are repeatedly happy to accept the need for a little more police power without considering the cost.

The gun libertarians may have picked a dumb fight, but at least they stand and fight for (what they believe to be) liberty. Meanwhile, over the past decade, the state has rolled over British liberties, cheered on by the media and both of the main political parties.

Last weekend, thousands of Americans demonstrated against spying by the NSA. Meanwhile in Britain, we discover that GCHQ is spying on us and sharing the information with the NSA. Here in the UK, we don’t demonstrate for our right to privacy or free speech. Nor do our leaders have the backbone to criticise the secret police; instead they issue threats against newspapers that dare reveal the erosion of our freedom.

It’s easy to draw up a long list of liberties lost in recent years, but what is most shocking is that these were taken without opposition.

  • Laws drawn up against a “terrorist threat” have routinely been used to attack other targets. When police brutality started to be routinely exposed by photographers, the police responded by using terrorist powers to harass photographers.
  • Carrying a knife is an offence punishable with prison time. The change in law came about following a moral panic over a “knife crime epidemic” which never happened. I’m not a huge fan of people carrying knives, but I’m even less of a fan of a police state with endless justification to stop and search people in the street, which is where we now live. We don’t need police stopping and searching our teenagers at their whim, especially since they choose to direct their actions against young black and Asian men – such police behaviour was a prime cause of the 2011 UK riots.
  • Possession of “extreme pornography” is punishable with prison time and addition to the sex offenders register. Possession can even constitute receipt of an “extreme” image by email. What constitutes “extreme” is the decision of puritanical politicians and regulators who seem never to have had sex lives of their own. This law is now to be extended to include “rape porn”. In practise, although sold as a law to “protect” people, this criminalises the recording of legal, consenting sex acts between adults.
  • We allow video and TV to be more tightly censored than most other democracies; now we are also ready to watch our free Internet access slip away, under the guise of “protecting children”.

Through moral panic after moral panic, draconian law after draconian law, British rights are eroded. But it seems the British people deserve this treatment. We fail to protest. We re-elect the Labour/Tory duopoly that competes to be “toughest” against the next non-existent threat to our safety. To their credit, the Liberal Democrats exhibit at least paper support for civil liberties; for this reason, it’s better that we elect Lab/Lib or Tory/Lib coalitions than either simple Labour or Tory governments.

We live in one of the safest societies on Earth. Crime in all forms has been falling for decades. And yet the average Briton seems more afraid and more prepared to surrender liberty than ever. We have become a nation of cowards (if we were ever anything else – our belief in our “glorious and courageous history” seems to largely be based on the courage of one man: Winston Churchill).

Liberty is often ugly. It means allowing people to do things that many people dislike or even fear. We’ve forgotten this in Britain, and unless we re-learn it, we will deservedly continue our slide towards living in a sham democracy where everything is monitored, and many harmless acts can result in police intervention in our lives. America, with its endless wars and regular suspension of democratic values, may not deserve to call itself the Land of the Free, but it has more right to do so than Britain does.

21 thoughts on “Britain: Land of the Cowardly”

  1. You could have added the vast number of security cameras in the UK “for your safety and security”. I agree entirely, and I think there is a lack of any serious political debate in the UK generally. Labour and Tories are basically peddling (slight variations of) the same message. Don’t know if you saw this story, but this is what happens when a “moral panic” gets completely out of control (this begs the question of whether our moral panics are being controlled):
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/a-modern-british-murder-vigilante-neighbours-face-jail-after-convictions-over-murder-of-disabled-man-bijan-ebrahimi-wrongly-accused-of-paedophilia-8909228.html
    The “moral panic” approach is often accompanied by talk about “our values” (used as a tool to attack minorities) as well (by both left and right).
    I’ve just been to the States for a holiday, and one of the good things about the place is the open friendly people you meet. Not all of them by any means conform to the “right wing moron” stereotype.

      1. The ACLU: “Because Freedom Doesn’t protect itself”: love that. I like the American people’s commitment to freedom, even if I think it is often misguided (in the sense of “guided in the wrong direction”, usually by corporate interests). I agree that (unfortunately) no organisation in the UK would undertake that sort of campaign.

        The only current debate I see about “freedom” relates to that of the Press, which implementing Leveson will apparently shackle. Whilst I’m generally suspicious of any Government interference with the media (look at what Blair and Hutton did to the BBC), the current British press is far from free (it’s controlled by a small number of wealthy individuals), and is riddled with corporate conflicts of interest (eg one of the reasons the Sun, Times, Mail, Express and Star bash the BBC is that all their parent companies have interests in rival TV channels, a fact they don’t usually bother to mention).

  2. The UK is one of the most violent first world nation on earth. Certainly the most violent in the EU

    I’d prefer to be able to lawfully fight back on even terms. However sans firearms I’m at the mercy of those that are bigger, stronger or more numerous than myself.

    Three angry Maori versus a slightly built man carrying a child. That’s the fight gun grabbers want & I can tell you how it ended because my friend was that slender man.

  3. Although all of the points about Britains civil liberties are true, America is hardly the beacon of cilvil liberties that you profess. We are talking about a country that is bent on the destruction of the rights of the individul and circumvents democracy as and when it, suits it. If there was any money to be made trust me the Republicans would have a CCTV camera in every home.

    As for UK being the most violent country, there are lies, damed lies and statistics, worse that that are the headline readers who quote them as fact rather than actualy read the articles

    1. Thanks for the feedback – yes, I agree that civil liberties in the US are in a very poor state.

      Here, I’m celebrating people who believe in liberty, even if they’re gun nuts and I completely disagree with their point. America’s distrust of government is often very right-wing and pro-corporate. However it still can contrast favourably with the supine attitude of most British people who (it seems) will accept any attack on liberty if it is sold as “reducing crime”, “making our streets safer”, “protecting children”, “tackling terror”, “dealing with sexualisation” or any of the other vague justifications.

      My frustration is at the complete lack of a civil liberties movement here. At least the US has one, even if it does come under daily attack.

      1. This article is quite interesting, and appears to suggest that the US attachment to free speech only runs one way. You will see that an American calling him (I assume)-self “Paragon T” thinks it’s purely a matter of employment law. He also makes various comments on the thread which suggest he may be worth (you) following.

        http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/guns-bible-guns–ammo-fires-writer-for-offmessage-editorial-8945508.html

        As a side issue, the Second Amendment talks about the right to bear arms being necessary for a well-ordered militia. That (at least in my view) is a long way from justifying the current free for all.

        1. Yes, I think the current interpretation of the 2nd amendment is pretty dumb, but who are we to question the US legal system? 😉

          1. It’s not so much that, but the fact that trying to start a debate (integral to the First Amendment right to free speech) appears to be trumped by a slavish devotion to an absolutist interpretation (at best) of the Second Amendment.

  4. However the UK might be prey to fear culture, I still find American to be the poorest culture. Granted, the press gets away with anything (the Mail can say anything they want and won’t apologise when proven wrong) and that just can’t be good if you want to avoid an Alan Moore scenario; but – once the usual retarded “muslamic-ray-guns” group is ignored- I’ve found less bigots and illiterate adults here than in the USA.

  5. I am not entirely sure you’re argument that possession of firearms in the USA leads to increased firearms elsewhere. While I can see the leakage over the US border to the south. The majority of weapons I see on TV in a variety of 3rd world countries are ex-Warsaw Pact weapons (7.62×39 AK47 / AKMS, RPG, Tokarevs, Makarovs, PPsh, etc (I have been surprised to see UK L1A2 SLR’s in Gaza and the Arab Spring uprisings.)). These have long been the weapons of choice because of their robust simplicity, availability and cheapness.

    In UK firearms ownership & use has significantly decreased since the 1960’s, in a succession of largely knee jerk responses to spectacular incidents which were very unusual for UK. During this period the possession of illegal firearms and their use in crime has risen dramatically.

    The idea that a teenager in Inner London might shoot another teenager back in the 70’s would have been incredible. Today it seems almost commonplace. So clearly the possession of registered firearms is not inherently linked to gun crime.

    There have been some recent spectacular incidents in the USA involving primarily disaffected young men, who had access to legally owned firearms. The focus has been upon the firearms, but the root causes of these young men’s disaffection seems to be glossed over. I guess that it may be just too difficult to deal with the social issues and the culture that ultimately leads to this type of person deciding to kill a group of other people.

    However, you are completely right about the willingness of parliament to pass increasingly oppressive laws in hysterical response to isolated incidents, often driven by the media.

    1. “The idea that a teenager in Inner London might shoot another teenager back in the 70’s would have been incredible. Today it seems almost commonplace.”

      That’s quite an exaggeration – the London and UK murder rates peaked in the 80s and have fallen since… a rise in shootings is unlikely to correlate with a fall in murders.

  6. The general tone of your argument about Britain “sleepwalking into a police state” (not my original phrase) is nicely illustrated by the story about GCHQ spying on the Germans in Berlin. When the CIA/NSA were discovered doing this, they closed down the Berlin spying station (this has been confirmed by thermal imaging cameras), and apologised. Cameron merely replied that “we do not comment on security matters”. Ignoring the fact that spying on the government of a friendly nation (and our largest trading partner) is likely to cause more damage to the UK than the value of any information arising from it, why is this a “security matter”?

  7. Only vaguely relevant, but interesting, I think (and quite funny). The Tories’ promises of letting people hold them to account through the internet broken, as they place all their old speeches in the “dark internet” usually reserved for terrorists and paedophiles! Feel free to add your punchline (possibly involving George Osborne!) and/or retweet.

    http://www.computerweekly.com/blogs/public-sector/2013/11/conservatives-erase-internet-h.html#.UoNnXhhjyrU.twitter

  8. Britain: It also has a more cowardly/useless left that is able to stand by and watch as hate crime figures rise against the disabled, immigration is attacked and unemployed are forced to work for free for corporations because of victim blaming mentality.

    Say what you will about America but Occupy Wall Street is winning the war (it still needs to tackle workfare)

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