This week’s headlines about the government’s proposals to bring forward comprehensive digital communicaitons interception proposals have sparked exactly the kind of reaction you would expect among the privacy and civil liberties communities – and rightly so.
A stock political response to civil liberties advocates is to imply that they are naive and simply unaware of the “hard decisions politicians have to make” when they go from opposition into government. This response is both patronising and illogical. It is patronising because, for example, since 9/11 there has been extensive public debate about “The War Against Terror” (the acronym they tried to ban…) – arguably, more public discourse about the balance between law enforcement and civil liberties than ever before, and conducted in a wider variety of forums than was ever possible pre “Web 2.0”.
If politicians have hard choices to make, they have never been in a better position to engage and persuade the public than they are now.
The “civil libertarians are naive about political reality” argument is illogical because (despite the current coalition), Westminster is still essentially a 2-party system. Many of the people who are in opposition now held office under the Labour government until just two years ago. They must, therefore, have reasonably clear and vivid memories of “the hard choices they had to make” when in office, rather than in opposition.
Looking forward to campaigning against Government snooping when David Davis calls another byelection to defend civil liberties!
Why, then, are Labour politicians like John Prescott now boasting (via Twitter) of their desire to ‘campaign against government snooping’, when in the 2006-2010 parliament, they were determined to bring in legislation which would grant them the same powers of interception? It can’t be out of naivete about “political reality”, because they faced the same policy imperatives when they were in power, and they reacted just as the coalition is reacting now: with disproportionate, intrusive surveillance proposals on a scale of which the Stasi could only have dreamt.
Conversely, how can Damian Green (a man with direct personal experience of the illiberal use of investigative powers) stomach his job at the Home Office when that department is putting forward such repressive proposals? Similarly, how can James Brokenshire (one of those rare MPs who actually understands how things like email work…) defend CCDP with a straight face, let alone a straight conscience.
And, as for the Prime Minister… well, as the Open Rights Group points out, here’s what he had to saybefore the election:
“The choice: 5 more years of Labour’s intrusive illiberal state or change with Conservatives” http://electionleaflets.org/leaflets/1176
Insert “U-turn” comment here… Though, as I say, I do not buy for a moment the idea that Cameron has suddenly become aware that he now cannot do without what he so adamantly opposed two years ago.
David Davis, at least, still has the guts to point out the Emperor’s nakedness (CCDP is “not necessary”, and “a very, very big widening of powers, which I’m afraid will be very much resented”). Let’s hope that, across the two houses of parliament, he is not the only one.