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August 06, 2009

Government ministers should be under twenty-four hour video surveillance - argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

The government want to further extend the state's use of CCTV cameras - Theodore Dalrymple argues that the next batch of CCTV cameras should be installed in the houses of government ministers.

The government, apparently, is thinking of installing closed circuit television cameras in the homes of the 20,000 worst behaved families, or rather households, in Britain, so that they are under surveillance twenty-four hours a day.

I have a better idea, in fact a far better idea: instead of the 20,000 households, government ministers should themselves be under twenty-four hour video surveillance. The tapes should be broadcast daily so that we, their constituents and paymasters, can see and hear what they are up to.

The reasoning is obvious. I grant that the 20,000 households whose members behave badly can and probably do cause a lot of misery; no one is more opposed to bad behaviour than I. But a few government ministers can cause so much misery that the misery caused by the 20,000 worst households pales into insignificance by comparison.

Even in these days of a surfeit of ministers, surveillance of them would be considerably cheaper than surveillance of 20,000 households. Furthermore, the small amount of information gathered would make it easy to analyse, comparatively-speaking, and therefore to act upon. To take an obvious example of the benefit such surveillance could have secured if it had been employed in the past: does anyone suppose that, if Mr Brown had been under such surveillance, he would have sold Britain's gold reserves in the way that he did, or that, had he done so, he would now be where he is?

But let us turn from the realm of satire to the realm of reality: not so very far to travel these days, as it happens, and getting less far every day. Indeed, one could run a competition along these lines: invite contestants to send a satirical proposal for a social policy. There would be two prize-winners: the contestant whose proposal was adopted by the government first, and the contestant whose proposal was adopted by the government last. Thus, both realism and imagination would be duly rewarded.

The 20,000 psychopathic households (a number, of course, plucked from the air, like most government numbers) are by now no strangers to the wonders of CCTV. They are likely to be already installed nearly everywhere they go. Not for nothing is Britain home to a third of such cameras in the whole world; every Briton is a star of screen many times a day.

As anyone who has recently attended a trial of a serious criminal case in Britain will attest, it is surprising how much of modern life is captured on video. It is rarely that the criminal has been caught by means to CCTV footage; but once he is so caught, his movements can usually be traced by means of such footage.

This being the case, the criminal classes, if such an expression is still permissible, are already quite used to CCTV cameras and know that they have nothing to fear from them. They are to society's attempts at crime prevention what crying wolf is to guarding a flock of sheep. Indeed, they are rather worse: for once you know that you can behave badly on camera and get away with it, you come to feel invulnerable. It is quite possible that they actually provoke the bad behaviour they are supposed to discourage.

The deeply sinister proposal - so horrible, in fact, that only people almost devoid of moral sense or feeling could make it or mean it having made it - is, in fact, emblematic of what has been wrong with British social policy for many years.

In essence, it amounts to this: first the government creates the fiscal, economic, and ideological conditions in which social pathology is, if not quite inevitable, at least highly encouraged, and then it limps after it with technocratic solutions that donít work, but that have the enormous advantage of employing large numbers of people. When a technocratic solution does not work, as inevitably it does not, the reason is obvious: because it has not been tried on a large enough scale, or with sufficient funds to sustain it. So the answer to the failure of technocracy is always more technocracy. If at first, you donít succeed, try, try again: for eternal failure is by far the best, perhaps the only, guarantee of continued funds.

There has, of course, always been bad behaviour. No policy will rid the world of crime, stupidity, laziness and the rest. There never was a golden age in which everyone said please and thank you as he should, in which all men were gentlemen and all women virtuous (and how boring such a golden age would have been!).

Still, one cannot help but feel that we have gone slightly too far in the other direction, that the famous pendulum of which so many people speak in the nervous hope that things will right themselves has swung too far away from the direction of bourgeois propriety. And among the reasons we have gone too far in the opposite direction is that the government has encouraged us - or perhaps I should more accurately say some of us who might have thought that we had little to lose - to do so.

There is now no unromantic reason why man and woman, mother and father, should stay together, at least in the lower reaches of society. I am, of course, in favour of romance, like everyone else; but it is rather a frail reed from which to build the infrastructure of society. Take but fiscal advantage and social opprobrium (commonly known as stigma) away, and hark what discord follows! Where once there was duty and self-respect, there is now the social worker and the child-protection officer - the latter terrified of being exposed either as a total incompetent or as an evil cradle-snatcher, or both, since they are not mutually exclusive.

Rather than admit that all its policies have conduced to the development of psychopathy as a pronounced social trait, and therefore reverse them, the government wants to install CCTV cameras in bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms: with what one might call the enforcement apparatus of romanticism, of the view that the greatest freedom which a man can enjoy is the freedom from consequences. But consequences are like nature: though you toss them out with a pitchfork, yet they return.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy and In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.

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At last, I'm not alone!

For seven years I've been banging this drum. Watching the watchers is the single most important part of what I call Trusted Surveillance. The rest is about us watching not other people but ourselves (and storing the results securely and VERY privately). For the detail, check out the link...

Posted by: Harry Stottle at August 10, 2009 10:32 PM

I think it's really too late for hope in your once-great nation, but we must start somewhere. The video feed could be used for a couple of 24/7 channels and some 'best of' shows on the week-end! Viewers could see censored versions on the regular channels and uncensored on pay-per-view. The possibilities are quite limitless, really.

It could even be bigger than Monty Python or Dr. Who.

Posted by: Tom Jones at August 11, 2009 04:20 AM
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