The politics of privacy

Why is it that despite what looks like very strong public hostility, together with a powerful media opposition, the proposed UK government surveillance programme, the Communications Capabilities Development Programme (a description of which can be found on the Open Rights Group wiki here) is currently very likely to go ahead? The problem is a deep one, connected with the party politics of the UK. All three major political parties are deeply conflicted over the issues – and that conflict may well allow the proposal to be pushed through regardless of the opposition of the people and of the media.

Tories…

The Tories, as very much the senior party in the Coalition, are to a great extend right behind the programme: after all, they’re the ones proposing it. In some ways the programme fits directly into some traditional Tory agendas: ‘Law and Order’ has long been central to Conservative politics, from the more extreme ‘hang ’em and flog ’em’ sections of the party to the slightly more rational ‘prison works’ mantra of Michael Howard et al. Moreover, a certain kind of old-fashioned patriotism could be said to fit in with the anti-terrorist agenda – and it’s easy to see the ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ argument used by those who essentially see criminals and terrorists as basically ‘evil’, distinct from and a threat to good, ordinary people.

On the other hand, there is another strong, traditional thread in Conservatism that goes directly against the idea of surveillance on this kind of scale and in this kind of way – and it should be no surprise that one of the most eloquent and consistent speakers against the programme has been David Davis. Civil liberties should be central to Conservative philosophy – and in particular the kind of civil liberties that protect against intrusion into privacy. An Englishman’s home is his castle, after all! What’s more, the kind of programme envisaged smacks of ‘big government’, and the ‘nanny state’, things that a Tory should instinctively reject. David Davis expresses this view very well – and I’m sure what he says resonates with a lot of Tory MPs and Tory supporters.

For the Tories, this civil libertarian attitude needs fostering and supporting.

Labour…

Labour may well be even more conflicted over the issue than the Tories. On the one hand Labour is supposed to stand up for the little people against oppression and control, and there is a strong association between the left wing and the ideas of freedom that this kind of a programme deeply undermines.Anyone who remembers the Thatcher years knows all too well how the forces of the police and even military intelligence were used against the unions (and not just during the miners’ strike) and against ‘left wing’ groups such as CND – the recent scandal of long term police infiltration into environmental groups (including long term relationships between undercover officers and and activists) fits into this pattern.

…and yet there are three strong factors that make Labour far from certain to oppose the programme. Firstly, there’s an authoritarian streak on the left – it would be unfair to suggest it might be a touch ‘Stalinist’, but there’s a certain degree of a ‘command and control’ attitude from some, and a sense that government needs to take a grip of things in this kind of a way. Secondly, there’s the long term need of the Labour Party to counter the Tory argument that Labour are ‘soft’ on crime – this attitude verged on paranoia during the last Labour administration, and is still clear in the current Labour party. Thirdly, there’s the deep problem surrounding the ‘War on Terror’ and the Labour Party’s role in it: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were more than complicit in the ‘War on Terror’, they drove it forward. These three factors produced a series of desperately authoritarian Home Secretaries, each bringing in more draconian and anti-civil libertarian measures than the last. David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid presided over some of the most appalling pieces of policy in living memory, from the push towards ID cards to the data retention measures that ultimately lie behind the current programme.

For Labour, the challenge is to break with the past – to admit (or at least recognise) that mistakes were made by the last administration, and to be brave enough to say that Blair and Brown got this wrong. That last part it really hard to do for politicians at the best of times…

The Lib Dems

In one way, the Lib Dems should be the least conflicted. These measures are pretty fundamentally ‘illiberal’, and the Liberal Democrats as a party should be simply and directly against them. A few short weeks before the last general election I heard Nick Clegg speak excellently at the Privacy International 25th Birthday Party, talking directly about the rise of the ‘database state’ under Labour and how directly opposed to such things he was both personally and politically. For the Lib Dems, there really shouldn’t be an issue – and if they were currently in opposition, against a majority Tory government, I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that as a party they’d oppose the measure.

…but they’re not in opposition. They’re part of the coalition, and that brings with it several pieces of baggage. First of all, they have to work with the Tories – and in particular, Nick Clegg has to work with David Cameron. Secondly, they have to appear ‘governmental’ – and Nick Clegg wants to look ‘statesmanlike’, which many politicians seem to think means doing the wrong, illiberal and unpopular thing, to appear more ‘responsible’. Thirdly, if they come out against this, many of their supporters may ask why they didn’t come out against other policies – student fees, privatising the NHS, welfare, legal aid etc – which were just as much against ‘liberal’ principles. To an extent they’re hoist with their own petard. They’re part of this government now, and may feel they have to ‘see it through’. There have already been so many ‘betrayals’, one more hardly makes any difference….

Three parties, alike in turmoil

So all three parties have their internal conflicts – which makes them ripe for the ‘security lobby’ to exploit. It should, however, also give us all a bit of an opportunity to bring about opposition. The excellent Privacy International, the Open Rights Group, Big Brother Watch and others are already working hard to oppose the current measures. One key could be to contact MPs directly – using http://www.writetothem.com/ for example. Whoever your MP might be – from whichever party – there is a way to try to convince them. If you’re writing to a Tory, emphasise the civil liberties aspects, talk about an Englishman’s Home. If you’re writing to a Labour MP, remember the way that surveillance undermines democracy, works against unions and progressive activism. If you’re writing to a Lib Dem, talk about traditional liberalism and liberty – and remind them that one betrayal need not lead to another.

I’d like to think that all this is possible – that we can harness the ‘good’ side of each of the parties, and not let ourselves be railroaded into something that, ultimately, I don’t think that many people, whatever their political persuasion, either want or believe that we really need. The politics of privacy are complex – one of the things that I have found particularly refreshing since I started working in the field is that is can unite people with otherwise very different political perspectives. Let’s hope that we can unite in this way successfully this time.

7 thoughts on “The politics of privacy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s