Lansley Plays 1: Dr N.H. Service, Ms Surveillance, and Sir Lansley Burnham-Balls

A three-act satire on the role which the British National Health Service plays in the information-surveillance complex of the United Kingdom.

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1. Introduction

Sir Lansley Burnham-Balls, UK Secretary of State for Healthy Minds, seeks to recruit Bavarian mercenary Dr N.H. Service as a consultant - to conduct experiments on patients and produce policy-based evidence for the British government’s risk-averse medical-surveillance technocracy, which is rapidly displacing liberal democracy and due process of law.

Dr N.H. Service is a psychiatrist with an unusual line in research, which she developed whilst working for the CIA in Iraq and Afghanistan. She has links with the security services and the Foreign Office; and unlike the usual providers of policy-based evidence, she took separate sciences at GCSE - by correspondence from Munich. She is an update of the mad scientist from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, who was part German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, and part Hungarian H-Bomb physicists Edward Teller and John von Neumann.

Dr Strangelove was obsessed with closing the mine-shaft gap between rival superpowers. Dr N.H. Service wants to close the gap between government ministers and the Judiciary by arming the government with arbitrary powers to target dissident bloggers and climate protesters.

Unfortunately, there is a mole in the Department of Healthy Minds, leaking documents to a radical MP, whom the anti-terror police would like to arrest. Sir Lansley thinks that with her specialist skills in medical surveillance technology, Dr N.H. Service may be able to assist in the hunt for the terrorist by screening his staff for depression and erectile dysfunction.

Satire requires an element of realism to be most effective, and this synopsis would suggest that Dr N.H. Service, ... is just an extended, darkly-comic sketch owing a debt to the novelist Tom Sharpe; though it is one based entirely on real events which have taken place in the United Kingdom since Tony Blair’s illimitable ego declared war on civil-liberties around the fin de siecle. One which his successors, Brown and Cameron-Clegg, then continued to wage.

Sir Lansley is clearly part of the present day Coalition government, though all the measures proposed by Dr Service were actually implemented by the previous New Labour regime.

The Dr Service character is a caricature, intended to make the stodgy didactic wordplay on a serious human rights issue more entertaining to sit through. At quieter moments, her measured droll resembles that of Henry Kissinger; though it should be noted that Kissinger was with the US Army in the Ardennes in 1944/5 in an intelligence capacity, and worked to bring about the downfall of the Nazi regime.

The employment of a darkly-comic German persona is doubly unfor-tunate. Firstly, it is a national stereotype which is somewhat dated and only relevant because the subject of the play is the exercise of arbitrary power by British government ministries and policing agencies of the type adopted by the Nazis in the 1930s and the Stasi in the Cold War. Identify a feared and despised minority, remove from them the protection of the law, and conduct a campaign of threats and harassment-surveillance against them.

The second unfortunate aspect is that it promotes the unlikely proposition that Britain does not have equally sinister characters in the Himmler/Goebbels mould speaking with Home Counties accents, or for that matter, accents from Sheffield or Glasgow.

The human-rights abuses currently being committed in Britain are prob-ably not carried out for purely ideological reasons - but to serve the careers of the state apparatchiks - ministers, civil-servants, and police chiefs - who live in fear of the tabloids and the burgeoning culture of risk-aversion and blame, which may be a product of saturation news coverage in the digital age.

This argument can be turned around however, so that the blame culture provides zealous officials with a rationale to cleanse the nation by cracking down on its troublesome nonconformists. The practice of kettling - crowd detention on the streets for many hours by police cordons - is used in London to discourage gathering and political protest by ordinary people, as many a tourist (and even a LibDem MP) discovered in May 2009.

As a student, the author was introduced to the plays and political philosophy of Bertholt Brecht. It was unfair to judge Brecht, who witnessed the effects of terrible poverty and total war, from the wealthy and secure perspective of the late twentieth century. In the Orwellian UK of the twenty-first century, all forms of radical art are much better appreciated.  Nonetheless, Brecht’s (translated) plays seemed disappointingly dull, in the Germanic tradition, and his philosophy hypocritical and deeply flawed, to say nothing of his personal morality. And yet his name has entered the lexicon, and his works, often vaguely understood, are a significant entry in the canon of twentieth century theatre study.

Brecht was born in Bavaria in 1898, and was a reactionary playwright and dramatist in exile until 1948, when he returned to Soviet-occupied Germany and became an uneasy establishment figure and advocate of socialism. He died in 1956, in a land ruled by a socialist regime where writers who criticised the government were imprisoned without fair trial or kept under constant watch by the Ministry of State Security (Stasi), in similar fashion to the sanctions of the British Home Office, though without the advanced intrusive video surveillance into homes and the infra-sound technology deployed by British ministers.

The second character of the play, Ms Surveillance, is a youthful visionary with a political manifesto for a utopian liberal democracy. This is summarised in one sentence: ‘In a liberal democracy, every citizen, rich or poor, not subject to a court ruling should be allowed to go about their lawful business without harassment and threats by the state.’ This is a world away from the reality of policing in Britain, where secret trials are conducted in Whitehall offices, thousands of surveillance operations are carried out each year, and punitive sanctions imposed on people who are entirely innocent of any offence under English law. The second axiom in the impromptu manifesto of Ms Surveillance is that in liberal democracies, policing agencies should uphold the law, not casually break it as part of their target-set daily routine or in pursuit of a political agenda.

The key word here is citizen, with legal rights protected by a written constitution and an independent Judiciary willing to uphold those rights. British people are not citizens, but subjects of a very powerful Executive which controls a myriad of policing agencies and assets, including a network of vigilante gangs. It exerts an unhealthy influence over a blinkered Judiciary, which has yet to recognise that its most important histor-ical prerogative is being usurped by government in the digital age. The horse (judge) and rider (minister) is an uncomfortable metaphor, inspired by cases where judges seek political advice before sentencing. 

British courts tend to be biased towards the Executive and the maintenance of good social order at the expense of individual liberty. However, a court will occasionally find against the government when asked to rule on a case. Unfortunately, buying access to a court is well beyond the means of most ordinary Britons; a situation which enabled the government to formulate harassment-surveillance policies without too much concern for an early human-rights challenge.

Civil-liberties groups such as Liberty, which could back a legal challenge to the practice of harassment-surveillance, are characteristically mute on the issue; though to be fair, on BBC Radio 4, Shami Chakrabarti did once ask a Labour government spokesman why harassment-surveillance victims are not simply charged with an offence and taken to court. Pre-sumably she was satisfied with the response that these were people who had not actually committed a crime. In 1942, an infamous conference took place in a suburb of Berlin, at a place called Wannsee. The task of the conference was to find a solution to the Jewish question. The Wannsee Conference has been extensively researched by historians, and even dramatised by film-makers. Not so widely documented are the meetings held in a similar spirit of intolerance and political opportunism in the first decade of this century in the United Kingdom.

The rightwing socialist New Labour regime, seeking a feared and despised minority to demonise using its newly acquired surveillance technology, fixed on the notion of criminalising the alleged mentally-ill without trial. There is nothing new in this concept - totalitarian regimes have always embraced it - but in liberal democracies there has been a tendency for independent judicial scrutiny into the work of doctor-jailers to prevent the incarceration of dissidents who express opposition to the ruling regime.

The New Wansee meetings were attended by members of the government, the civil-service, the medical profession, and charities. The civil-service was then undergoing massive mobilisation to implement the torrents of legislation pouring from the manure Parliaments, with very little scrutiny by the majority of Labour MPs bought off with patronage and expense payments. The medical profession and charities were enjoying unprecedented largesse from an ideologically driven Labour government which, true to historical form, had no sense of fiscal responsibility.

The first signs of a final solution came from a public information campaign broadcast on national television. The patronage of the government extended everywhere - including the glamorous advertising industry. Actors in heavy make-up played the mentally-ill at large in the community with tired eyes and pale complexions. This was not quite Der Ewige Jude (The English title was The Eternal Jew), a public information film commissioned by Joseph Goebbels in which Jewish people were portray- ed as resembling rats; but it was, nonetheless, open to sinister interpretation by any reasonably literate person. No need for yellow badges, but look out for the strangers with mental illness on your street until we have measures in place to deal with them.

There was much debate in the media on plans to change the mental health laws and use the NHS as part of a prosecuting authority which could circumvent the centuries old practice of judicial scrutiny. All the discussion was purely academic - there was never any doubt that Labour would get its legislation through, passed by a goose-stepping army of backbenchers marching to the tunes of the leadership. About one third of Labour MPs were actually employed as ministers, which tended to blur any distinction between Executive and Legislature. It was difficult to keep track of the Labour junior ministers’ names. Every week a new one would pop up like an overnight mushroom to feed the eager media scrum with the latest policy initiative to curb civil-liberties.

The casual dismissal of calls for advocacy for the victims of this new type of pogrom were quite nauseating. Social commentators astutely explained that this legislation would not affect the middle-class professionals in Parliament or the media, and therefore they had nothing to worry about - so long as they didn’t partake of socialised mental health screening whilst unemployed - in which case they risked becoming one of a new criminal class of Untermenschen, unworthy of legal representation.

All British governments throughout history have had their critics, though New Labour and the Coalition are the first regimes in modern history to use vigilante gangs to harass and threaten critics of their policies as part of a repertoire of dirty tricks. The inevitable use of the NHS as a policing agency without judicial scrutiny in the digital age should cause concern among progressive and traditional liberals alike, and is not a good portent for the future of liberal democracy in Britain. However, to use mental health legislation against a law-abiding subject, the government needs a pretext, e.g. a visit to the surgery of a government doctor.

To encourage people to attend surgeries, the New Labour government repeatedly announced screening programmes for depression, which it hoped would net hundreds of thousands of names on its database, which could then be targetted selectively. First Alan Johnson, and then his successor Andy Burnham, sold this lie to the public with a consummate ease which Tony Blair would have been proud of.

The Coalition government has recently announced another screening programme - for the slightly more delicate condition of erectile dysfunction. No doubt this will provide a second happy-time for the Home Office - and a rich harvest of data on personal lives to be shared around government departments.  One has to wonder where, exactly, in the order of business of a Conservative-led government, erectile dysfunction lies? A topic for Conference, perhaps, Mr Cameron.

There is a growing tendency among public figures in the UK to use lies, obfuscation, and deception when dealing with each other, the electorate, and constituents. Internecine briefing in the Labour government was rife from 1997 onwards - and towards the end of the regime, a special advisor to Gordon Brown attempted to smear opposition MPs and their wives with concocted stories about their private lives. Harriet Harman worked tirelessly to prevent the public from finding out about the Parliamentary expenses scandal. Alastair Campbell’s spin machine was a notorious source of government propaganda for most of the Blair years.

The latest incident in this saga is a recent court ruling that former Labour immigration minister and MP, Phil Woolas, had deliberately made false statements of a defamatory nature about his Liberal Democrat opponent in the 2010 general election. Mr Woolas had successfully defended the seat with a wafer-thin majority of 103. The court subsequently banned Mr Woolas from holding office for three years and ruled that a by-election must take place for the now vacant seat.

Mr Woolas immediately announced his intention to challenge the ruling through judicial review, which his station in life permits him to do, unlike the Untermenschen in the play; though it is not entirely clear how the mechanism of judicial review will work in this case. After the court ruling was announced, the media conducted their usual vox pop of constituents and one contributor succinctly suggested that the Labour Party had been conducting ‘dirty tricks for years’, a theme which the author has been expounding for the last three years.

The philosophy of lies, deception, and thuggery in public life which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown brought to government informed and inspired a whole generation of civil-servants and police officers to rede-fine their roles as public servants in a liberal democracy, and to transgress the previous constraints on unacceptable actions and behaviour.

The as yet unanswered question is whether this is the result of the Blair-Brown-Campbell authoritarianism at the heart of government, or a natural evolution of a society with such an elaborate and extensive information-surveillance complex, combined with a traditional tyranny of convenience. The jury will be out on this question for another four and a half years;  however, eyebrows are currently being raised about the nature and purpose of Prime Minister Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Unit. It would appear that British politicians, left and right, just can’t get enough of the new religion of psychology, despite all the logical flaws in its doctrine.

An early blot on David Cameron’s copy book is the questioning by police of Mr Cameron’s shadowy director of communications about illegal phone-tapping by his journalists when editor of a Sunday tabloid. The great and the good were naturally vexed at the idea that their mobile phone conversations were being monitored, but few people realise how easy it is now to infiltrate homes with video as well as audio technology.

The New Labour government, with its Regulation of Investigatory Pow-ers Act 2000, hoped to restrict the technology to use by the public sector, targetting people unable to buy access to the courts; though as the tech-nology becomes more widely available, it will, inevitably, be used against more interesting targets in public life.

The Metropolitan Police have been reticent about their investigation into alleged phone tapping by journalists, and have drawn criticism from high profile victims such as former deputy PM John Prescott. Has a masonic pact been forged between senior Met officers and media barons? Probably - but the explanation in this case may be more straightforward. The range and scope of intrusive video and audio surveillance carried out by policing agencies in the UK is vast and, if  more details were known, well beyond what most voters who believe in the basic tenets of liberal democracy would consider acceptable.

These activities are protected by secrecy for reasons of national security or public interest - cloaks which can hide all manner of official deeds and misdeeds, including law-breaking. The government has consistently rejected calls for intercept evidence to be used in court because it would lead to disclosure of politically unacceptable activities authorised by ministers. An investigation into phone tapping by journalists could result in a wider investigation into surveillance by the state.

In 2006, the New Labour government tried to stage a form of Parlia-mentary coup with the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill - which, in its original form, provided ministers with the power to make laws without a vote by MPs or peers, some of whom were courageous enough to oppose the government and insist on significant amendments. In future, Parliamentarians will have to consider carefully the consequences of opposing governments, especially those backed by the increasingly emboldened police and security lobby, if they live in easily targetted terrace or apartment buildings of the sort common in London.

There isn’t much point in having someone’s identity on a database of dissidents without having sanctions with which to target them. These are listed within the text of the play. Human surveillance in the UK is far easier to conduct now than in East Germany during the Cold War. Residences can be targetted with infra-sound (simulating helicopter patrols) to cause sleep deprivation and nau-sea; and relatively cheap covert video systems - imaging outside and inside the home. Vehicles can be bugged and tracked using aircraft and ANPR. Vigilante organisations such as Neighbourhood Watch are informed (incorrectly) that the target is a criminal and directed by mobile phone to his whereabouts in public - often using light aircraft.

Taunts and threats can be sent in spoofed emails and pop-up windows through websites such as The Guardian online. All forms of communication - letters, email, and telephone links - can be blocked or tampered with to impose a form of Soviet-style internal exile on a dissident writer. The third character in the play, Sir Lansley Burnham-Balls, is a Machia- vellian politician urbanely pulling the strings of his half-crazed puppet consultant, Dr N.H. Service, until the political priorities change and the latter becomes more of a liability than an asset.

The mad ranting and dubious verbal concatenations of Dr Service are not simply the product of enthusiastic writing, or even a pale imitation of the Chaplin characters in The Great Dictator (1940); but are intended to play on a belief, commonly held by cynics, that there is a streak of insanity behind the granite mask of every psychiatrist. One which readily explains their choice of profession. A similar logic applies to the profession of film censor. The archetypal mad psychiatrist does not just populate the B-movie horror genre, but has been a staple of American literature, in more subtle guises, since the publications of Sigmund Freud opened up a world of new possibilities for writers.    

The choice of third-character name is so obvious it is not worth stating, other than to note that it reflects the transition from the ideological statist collectivism of Messrs Burnham and Balls, to the more pragmatic individualist realpolitik of the Coalition, which succeeded the New Labour regime and immediately stepped up the campaigns of harassment-surveillance against dissidents. The hypocritical gap between Coalition actions and rhetoric on civil-liberties may not fully justify, but at least partly excuses, the incongruity of the play.  

In Act I, the audience is bombarded with exposition on the activities of the British government known collectively as harassment-surveillance, and which the Home Office denies the existence of as a policy. The Home Office statement is not surprising, given the lies and obfuscation which have come to characterise government in the UK; and that the vigilantes and policing agencies they control are, by all previous standards, breaking legal statutes with impunity on the authorisation of a cabinet secretary.

The British constitution permits members of the government to author-ise law-breaking if they think it is in the public interest. For example, a Watergate-style burglary by MI5, ordered by the Home Secretary against a fringe party, would be legal in some circumstances, depending on how many seats the fringe party had in Parliament; and would certainly not result in the impeachment of a minister - at least until the fringe party gained a significant presence in the House of Commons. Tony Blair was investigated by the police for the sale of peerages because there was no conceivable public interest in such a corrupt practice, though predictably, the police investigation came to nothing, as did the police investigation into MI5 collusion in torture abroad.

Every aspect of Dr Service’s proposal has already been implemented in the constituency of South Cambridgeshire and elsewhere. Policing agencies have been authorised by a minister to harass, threaten, defame, vandalise, and steal regardless of the law. This is the most disturbing aspect of harassment-surveillance. People find themselves having to report a crime to the policing agency which committed the crime, or was complicit in some way. It is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Act II may seem like a trivial exercise in SM theatre, but it has a very serious, perhaps obvious, message. People who sanction human-rights abuse from within the privileged political class to which Ms Surveillance (and Home Secretary Theresa May) belong are not immune from its ravages. You either have law for everyone or eventually you won’t have it for anyone.

Act III provides a topical resolution in which a pragmatic minister decides that human-rights abuse are simply not worth the cost to the economy - politically or financially. There is currently a palpable tension between the populist Executive power (which controls the Legislature, and is, in turn, heavily influenced by the tabloids) in the UK, and the more cautious and conservative Judiciary, which was frequently a target of the tabloids before New Labour came to power and began limiting judicial discretion.

In the digital age, ministers have discovered that they can impose their own sanctions on dissidents without recourse to the courts. Britain’s future may well be as a technocracy policed by vigilante gangs and GCHQ’s computer hackers and buggers directed by government ministers. The exigent question is whether or not this is acceptable to the majority of voters, who can only make an informed voting choice if they are aware of the human-rights abuses currently being committed by ministers on their behalf. This play will, hopefully, contribute something towards their enlightenment.

“Vandalism is crime ... Harassment-and-intimidation is crime.”  British Home Secretary Theresa May speaking on BBC Radio 4, 4th December, 2010.

“My dear fellow, you forget that we are in the native land of the hypocrite.” The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

 

By Tax Fries:

A Spider Ballet

The Wulfmarsh Weekend

Ragnarok

Gothic Purgatory

LANSLEY PLAYS 1:

Dr N.H. Service, Ms Surveillance, and Sir Lansley Burnham-Balls

 

© Tax Fries 2010

ISBN 978-1-4467-8596-6

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