(Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Into the lion’s mouth

Nigel Jones laments the rise of the British snitch

Among the blizzard of statistics and numbers that have blitzed us during the COVID-19 Pandemic, one particularly depressing figure has snagged in my mind. No fewer than 300,000 of my fellow Brits have reported their friends, neighbours, and people unknown to them to the authorities for alleged breaches of the Government’s often absurd and contradictory Lockdown guidelines.

As Lisa Hilton’s brilliant cover article in May’s Critic reminded us, modern totalitarian regimes drew their inspiration from the ancient city state of Venice, where the authorities covered the Serenissima with  a network of so called bocca di leone –  (Lion’s Mouths), a novel form of letter box in which Venetians could post anonymous denunciations of their neighbours for various infractions of the law: sometimes with fatal consequences for the transgressors.

Before lockdown, I had naively assumed that such a sinister system of surveillance and state control had no place in Britain, with it’s previously jealously guarded traditions of privacy and individual liberty. Now, however, those 300,000 sneaks and snitches have given me pause for thought, proved me wrong, and shown up my cosy complacency for the illusion that it probably always was.

There’s an underground army of curtain twitching busybodies among us, just itching to blab

The British, through the blessing of avoiding the totalitarianism that engulfed most of 20th century Europe, always looked down condescendingly on their continental cousins for denouncing those who committed such wartime ‘crimes’ as sheltering fugitive Jews, aiding resisters, or merely listening to the BBC at a time when the Corporation supported rather than opposed freedom as it does today. But, thanks to the 300,000, we can no longer be so disdainful.

We have no further need to look to the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands to see how Brits would behave when conquered by an oppressive power: now we know. While the Pandemic threw up plenty of stories of altruism, self sacrifice and solidarity with others, few noticed that there was an underground army of curtain twitching busybodies among us, just itching to do their fellow humans down and run to blab to the powers that be.

It was the foot soldiers of that army of sneaks who left insulting notes on the cars of NHS nurses driving to work; who spotted and snitched on neighbours holding barbecues in their back gardens; and yelled at perfect strangers in the street who failed to keep the requisite two metres distance apart.

Big Brother is watching you. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Even in the quiet cathedral city where I live I had my own run in with the snitches. Lacking a garden, I regularly sat on a bench in a park reading, while absorbing my daily quotient of Covid-repelling Vitamin D in the sunshine. The park gardener, just as regularly, took it upon himself to time my presence on the bench, and when he deemed that I had been there long enough, would attempt to move me on.  When I stood, or rather sat, my ground, he reported me to the ‘community wardens’, a species of snitch recruited by the local council to spy on citizens going about their lawful business.

As a result of the gardener’s snitching, one such warden followed me on a bike when I left the park on foot. I could hardly fail to notice that I was being tailed through the deserted streets by this unsubtle sleuth. Annoyed by such illegal harassment, I regret to say that I confronted my pursuer with the moot question: “Are you following me, you c**t?” – at which he rapidly pedalled off without a word. That was not, however, the end of the affair.

Within a few minutes I was sitting on another bench elsewhere in the city when I was approached by a Policeman who had been alerted by the gardener and warden to the presence of this dangerously recidivist bench sitter. Fortunately for me, the PC turned out to be a friendly, old style bobby within days of retirement. Crime being low in our city, he had time to share my bench for half an hour and chew the fat, largely about the politicisation of the Police since he had joined it thirty years before in Mrs Thatcher’s era. Then, having established that I had committed no offence, we broke the guidelines to shake hands, and parted.

The future no longer needs an Orwell to imagine it as it is almost here: a China-style society in which we will be tagged, monitored, and controlled

I admit to being perhaps over-sensitive to the increasing intrusion of Big Brother in our lives because of my historical awareness of Europe’s recent totalitarian past. (My friendly PC had traced me to my second bench thanks to the ubiquitous CCTV cameras that litter even our silent streets, of which Britain has many more than any country in Europe).

The future no longer needs an Orwell to imagine it as it is almost here: a China-style society in which we will be tagged, monitored, and controlled from cradle to grave by an all-seeing, all-knowing, immovable state in which our treasured freedoms will become a quaint curiosity from an almost forgotten past. The nightmare society envisaged in the wartime words of Winston Churchill “…made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science” will have arrived.

But what is even worse than the steady erosion of our hard won rights and liberties by such hi-tech snooping, is the knowledge that it is happening almost without protest or complaint. That it is in fact actually being brought into being by the 300,000 snitches like my gardener and warden who are already among us. These narks are only too happy to post their shrill denunciations in the new Lions’ Mouths, and so help Big Brother clamp his manacles ever more firmly around their neighbours’ wrists – and hence around their own.

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