In 2009 the Conservative Party issued a document entitled Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State as part of its pitch for the 2010 election. Authored by Dominic Grieve and Eleanor Laing, it makes for fascinating reading in hindsight. Its unfulfilled promise damages any residual faith one might place in pre-election pledges and stated intentions. It is full of ideals to cheer a Classical Liberal’s heart:
New Labour has excessively relied on mammoth databases and wide powers of data-sharing, on the pretext that it will make government more effective and the citizen more secure. Its track record demonstrates the opposite, with intrusive and expensive databases gathering masses of our personal information – but handled so recklessly that we are exposed to greater risk.
A Conservative government will take a fundamentally different approach. We believe that your personal information belongs to you, not the state. Where private details are collected by government, they are held on trust. The government must be held accountable to its citizens, not the other way round.
We were promised a “fundamentally different approach” and with that came implications of less interference in people’s lives, a restraining of the state and a restoration and conservation of British liberty. All that early promise peaked with the abolition of the ID card policy and soon dissipated; far from “reversing” the rise of the surveillance state the Conservative Party has been on a mission to advance what New Labour started.
Once passed the Investigatory Powers Bill and the Extremism Bill will cast a shadow over the party’s record in Government for years to come. They represent the most illiberal and ill-conceived legislation to darken the Commons since New Labour – whose rank authoritarianism the Party was previously critical of – left office.
The Extremism Bill has been through multiple drafts as Whitehall struggle to come up with an adequate definition of what constitutes an “extremist” that will not be challenged in court on grounds of free speech; that alone set enough alarm bells ringing to signal to me that the Bill should be torn up and discarded. Such a definition is malleable and subject to change; it can never be objective or sufficiently measurable, which makes it downright dangerous in the hands of the state.
The initial strategy was to focus on “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”; but this has been widely ridiculed and is regarded to be too broadly defined and open to interpretation to survive scrutiny in court. Never mind the fact that the whole notion was fundamentally a violation of British values and the principles of liberty developed by our ancestors over centuries.
The Bill was to include measures that target individuals that operate in what the police are disturbingly calling the “pre-criminal space”. Potentially this would mean British citizens being prosecuted on the basis of their thoughts. The age old test of criminal liability according to Common Law, actus reus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea (the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty) will be violated as the courts prosecute based only on the guilty mind (mens rea) in the absence of action (actus reus). Otherwise known as “thought crime”.
This is a disgrace to the values we should hold dear in what we like to call a “liberal democracy”. Extreme and bigoted ideas should be challenged robustly not banned; any definition of “extremism” risks being broadened over time or stretched by the authorities and there is a clear track record of anti-terror legislation being used to persecute the innocent. We are fighting terror by walking down a dark path towards totalitarianism.
The Investigatory Powers Bill or “Snooper’s Charter” is described by Theresa May as “world leading”. For once she is dead right. In December the Communist Party of China passed widely criticised surveillance laws that it said was inspired by UK legislation; we now act as an inspiration to the world’s most powerful police state. For shame.
Truly the powers contained within the Bill are more suited to a police state and dictatorship than a democracy. Indeed, once forced through Parliament the UK will have gone further than any other democracy on Earth in creating a surveillance state. We are indeed world leaders.
The measures contained within the Bill were disingenuously being sold as a mere legal validation of powers already in use when actually they represent a significant extension of the power of the state. Government agencies will have the ability to track and read the browsing history of everyone in Britain and hack all of your devices at will. Your Internet Service Provider will be forced to keep a record of the websites you visit and the apps you use whether or not you are suspected of a crime.
The principle of one being innocent until proven guilty is well and truly dead; there are no signs of life.
Our politicians are in hock to our security services and seem naively and meekly willing to give them any powers they ask for and assume they can be trusted. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear is now official Government policy. The security services are increasingly unrestrained and with their much criticised “bulk powers” will be able to harvest all the data they want without suspicion. Should an organisation be issued with an order to hand over the private information of customers or purposely weaken their security it will be illegal to tell a journalist. This is deeply alarming.
I don’t deny that we face threats from terrorism but mass surveillance is not the answer; it is unacceptable to effectively place the entire British population under suspicion and potentially under surveillance. It is to be expected that the security services will ask for more powers but it is about time our politicians applied some serious scepticism to their claims and requests and learned to say “no”.
If history has taught us anything it is that these powers will be inevitably abused and that we cannot trust the state not to blunder or get caught out and cause data breaches. The Party used to agree with this as evidenced by its own report on the subject which highlighted the severe risks of data breaches, criticised the New Labour view of the relationship between the state and the citizen and warned of the erosion of liberty:
“The trade-off between personal privacy and security has proved a mirage. As Sir Ken McDonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions, commented in his valedictory speech in 2008:
‘We need to take very great care not to fall into a way of life in which freedom’s back is
broken by the relentless pressure of a security state’. ”
Well, quite. If only the Party had heeded their own warnings; instead they are now the chief architects of the British surveillance state and an active threat to liberty.
David Cameron has made these Bills the centrepiece of his “legacy programme” of legislation. Some legacy. I can’t help but remember the apt words of an ambitious, young politician on the rise:
“If we want to stop the state controlling us, we must confront this surveillance state.”
That was David Cameron in 2009.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty