Is privacy a particularly British obsession? Walking round our snowy Stockholm suburb the other night, well after dark, I was struck by how every ground-floor room was open to view from the outside, lights full on, no curtains in any of the windows, inhabitants getting on with their eating, drinking, talking, watching TV – or whatever – in full view of every passer-by; in a way that would be virtually inconceivable in England. Kajsa tells me she is just as shocked by all the closed curtains in Hull at night as I am by the lack of them in Enskede.
This must indicate an important difference between our (my) two nations. Swedes don’t mind if people know what they’re up to. Within limits, of course; but those limits extend much further than lighted windows. Even their tax returns can – as I understand it – be accessed by members of the public. Just imagine a Brit being confronted with that; or, to take a recent and controversial example, an American ex-President. It would be regarded as an attack on one of their fundamental human rights. Every man – and woman – is – pace Donne – ‘an island, entire unto himself’; and neither the State nor anyone else has the right to pry into his or her affairs.
This would help explain Britain’s historical objection to ‘espionage’, in principle, in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, about which I’ve written in Plots and Paranoia. It was considered to be almost the worst of all political crimes, even if employed to discover murderers and terrorists. ‘I would rather a hundred people had their throats cut in Radcliffe Highway’, said a member of the House of Lords in 1830 (I think), after a particularly horrible murder spree, ‘than to be subjected to these French methods of policing.’ (I may have the quotation slightly wrong; but the correct version is in Plots and Paranoia.) Yes, I know: Sherlock Holmes used disguises. But this was part of his essential un-Britishness, which the good Dr Watson was there to counter-balance.
I used to share some of that distaste myself, instinctively – probably inherited from my own Britishness. For years I resiled against surveillance cameras in the streets, secret services, and even identity cards. Privacy was an essential pillar of our liberties, I thought, saving us from oppression from any agency that might have more than the most essential access to our affairs. Now, after 25 years (off and on) in Sweden, I feel slightly differently.
In a way it comes down to our understanding of democracy. If everyone in a democratic community has an equal share in saying how that community is run, then surely he or she ought to know how the other members of that community are affected by how it is run presently. That applies to the poorest and most disadvantaged ones, but also to those in the middle, and at the ‘top’. Democracy requires transparency; which ‘privacy’ is the enemy of. So, draw back the curtains, Brits, and let us all gaze in.