I always wondered why so many civilians aid authoritarian regimes: people spying on their neighbours, and denouncing their work colleagues and friends, helping tyrants to stay in power.
It existed in all East European communist countries. It existed in Nazi-Germany, and in the countries it occupied. In the Stasi Unterlagen Behorde (the Stasi Records Office) in Berlin, people can find out who of their friends landed his mother, sister, or son in prison or worse. Civilian informer systems still exist in Cuba, North Korea and a raft of other countries.
What motivates people to do the unspeakable? And in such numbers? Imagine my surprise to find the answer in 2020 Britain. A nation nominally free since Magna Carta, and definitely free since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and rightly proud of it. Yet when the lockdown started, the police were overwhelmed by calls from people informing on their neighbours.
Are these informers ‘evil’? Perhaps a few are, and make up allegations. Some may do it as a lark.
But most simply see it as a civic duty. They believe that what they are doing is right. The democratically elected government of the United Kingdom is fighting a terrible danger. The citizens want to help. Anything ‘endangering’ the nation is fair game. If you don’t do anything illegal, you have nothing to fear, right?
Has it occurred that people who did this under authoritarian regimes did it for the same reason? Perhaps a few were forced into informing to save their own lives. Perhaps some did it out of revenge, or for personal gain. But the vast majority thought they were doing ‘the right thing’. They saw a ‘danger’ (communism, the Jews, fascism, republicanism, the infidel) and wanted to protect their country.
Why? Perhaps they held those ideological beliefs. In many cases, it was what their government told them. Which they believed, for whatever reason.
In the long run, It is impossible for a minority to enforce its views upon the unwilling majority. The more unfair and severe the rules, the more difficult it becomes. There is only so much the police can do. Ultimately, for the regime to survive, to enforce unpopular and onerous rules, you need more than the paid staff to make it happen. You need the active support of at least part of the population.
You can do this in two ways. First, you make sure that following the rules becomes a ‘moral duty’. Nothing works better than to make people believe that what they are doing ‘is right’. Yes! You should call the police when your neighbour invites six friends for an illegal dinner party – because somewhere a wonderful granny may die as a result!
Following the rules is not an individual choice: it is to save another person. Observe how traditional logic has been turned upside down.
Secondly, you make it formal. You encourage civilians to help enforce the law. All authoritarian regimes do this. When I went to North Korea, I quickly became aware of ‘inminbans’. Inminbans are typically bossy ladies of a certain age who keep an eye on the twenty households under their remit. She keeps a register of anyone going in or out of your flat. She checks your travel permit. She has a key to your flat, and checks that the compulsory portraits of The Leaders are kept clean and dusted. Once a week she has a meeting with the security services, where she informs on what she has seen.
She is feared and paid. Almost every communist country had a similar system. It is notorious in Cuba: they are called Committees for the Defence of the Revolution.
Now we are introducing a formalised informer system in the UK. Boris Johnson announced that an army of ‘Covid Marshals’ will help enforce tough new rules.
You can say that our situation is quite different from authoritarian regimes. But is it? The PRime Minister was elected with a huge majority, basically because of Brexit, for five years. There is no election in sight. His majority is such that no MP dares to disagree publicly as he or she can simply be ignored. Then a sudden unexpected emergency came along – about which we knew nothing when we voted. He just appointed an unknown Chancellor who owes everything to him. He rules with a small number of friendly Cabinet members (‘C19’) and an unelected spin doctor.
Johnson panicked when Professor Ferguson issued his Report, predicting a catastrophic death toll. His spin doctor had a Damascene conversion and bought it. His small number of Cabinet Members who surround him likewise. He decided the lockdown of the entire population, at a catastrophic cost. He dramatically set aside the herd immunity policy which had been developed for just such pandemics by successive governments since 2005.
They introduced the lockdown. As most were in hysterical fear of the new unknown disease, they supported the measures. We now have more information. Opposition is becoming vocal. Is the population still on board? Having been locked up for many months, nobody believes that a severe lockdown is feasible again.
That severe measures are no longer supported is clear for all who want to see. It started with supermarket refusing to enforce masks. The Metropolitan Police announced it would only intervene in extreme cases. The anti-lockdown demonstrations are growing in strength. Social media are on fire. Want the pulse of the nation? Read the comments on Guido Fawkes, or here on ConHome.
So now the Government hires informers. They have to, because they do not have the police numbers to enforce severe new rules. They can no longer count on the moral support of the long-suffering population: most of us have picked up on the fact that the death toll is very low, and that it is not possible to survive without keeping the country’s economy running.
If you have lost the support of the people, and need informers, you need to take stock.