If there’s one person who, in the wake of the whole Snowden episode, would be fully justified in hiring an Airbus A380 and using it to skywrite “I TOLD YOU SO” across north-western Europe, it’s Caspar Bowden. But that’s not his style. Instead, he put two years of independent research work to use, drafting the briefing note on PRISM for the European Parliament enquiry, and gets on with asking factual questions about the gap between intelligence policy and public accountability.
So congratulations to Caspar Bowden for getting put through to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s radio phone-in slot, with a piercing question about unilateral US espionage of the UK (video available online here). Not entirely surprisingly, Caspar didn’t get a straight answer – particularly not the one British citizens wanted to hear, which was “It’s unacceptable, and we’re going to tell them all intercept-sharing deals are off until they start respecting extra-territorial human rights”. Nor the other answer “It’s unacceptable, but for £100m, we’re just going to roll over and have our tummy tickled”, which probably would have been closer to the realpolitik of it.
If there was a germ of hope to be taken from Mr Clegg’s answer, it was this: mass surveillance by the state must not only be legal, it must also be legitimate. Its legitimacy stands or falls on the government’s ability to prove that the surveillance is accountable and proportionate. As ever, Mr Clegg says the right things in terms of principle; the doubt is as to whether he can translate the principle into policy or practice.