The response to the Snowden revelations must be more government, not less

by Sam Fowles

I wasn’t that bothered when I read that GCHQ could basically have seen everything I do on the internet. Unless they’re concerned that I might be receiving secret messages from Ayman al-Zawahiri encoded in cat videos or decide to prosecute me for using a friend’s username on Lexis Nexus at law school, I can’t think of much that would interest them.

But I was wrong. Edward Snowden’s revelations should terrify. They should terrify because, with more crimes in statute and case law than even the most eminent criminal lawyer can learn (and this is before one even gets into torts), most of us would probably be guilty of something if someone was prepared to keep us under surveillance for long enough.

But they should also terrify because they will contribute to a growing distrust in “government”. Not “the government” as in the one which we have at any one time, but “government” as a concept. They should terrify because losing faith in “government” translates all too easily into losing faith in democracy.

More and more people don’t trust government whoever is running it. Apparently all politicians are liars, all public institutions are corrupt, the state is only ever out to get you.

The irony is that the left, traditionally the side of the political divide most associated with “big government” has most reason to fear it. For the last two years the Guardian has painstakingly revealed the scale to which the British state has spied on left wing political groups. The focus has been on the impact on individuals, the affairs between undercover officers and the activists they betrayed, the children conceived in relationships based on lies, the dead infants whose identities were stolen.

What hasn’t been mentioned nearly enough is that the state used undercover agents to spy on activists who were simply exercising their democratic right to disagree with those in power. These operations didn’t result in high profile prosecutions and they had absolutely nothing to do with protecting us from dangerous criminals.

This wasn’t Al Qaeda or the IRA or even the National Front. The worst that groups of this type have ever been convicted of is occupying a big chimney for a bit.

For this, five received conditional discharges and the rest got 18 months community. Hardly the stuff to threaten the peace of the kingdom. Yet someone in government felt it was necessary to embed multiple agents for up to twenty years. We’ve all agreed this is bad. Someone needs to ask why it was done.

These weren’t isolated incidents either. Along with Snowden’s revelations came the news that the police embedded undercover agents in order to smear the Lawrences.

That bears repeating: the Metropolitan police went to the expense of a full undercover operation. the target: an aging black couple who’s son had just been murdered. Their crime: criticising the Metropolitan Police. It was just a few years earlier that South Yorkshire police had mounted a campaign of defamation (including 95 prosecutions, all of which failed) after they brutally attacked picketing minors at Orgreave.

What unites these victims of the unfettered aggression of a shadow state? They expressed left wing views. Where were the infiltrations of the National Front, the BNP the EDL or even the fox hunting lobby?

All of these groups actively expressed plans to break the law. Some still do. It turns out that dissent is permitted in this country, even violent dissent. So long as it’s dissent of the right kind.

Threaten minorities, women, even a democratically elected government, from the right and you may do so with impunity. You may even get a spot on Question Time. Do so from the left and you will be harassed and spied on, even falsely prosecuted. If anything the behaviour of the British state is more nefarious than any despotism. At least despots are indiscriminate about their repression. In this country we maintain the illusion of an equal right to free speech while working furiously to subvert it.

And yet the absolutely sure fire way to make it much worse would be to lose faith in government. Because government has one thing going for it that will always make it, to (inaccurately) paraphrase the great man, the least worst option: democracy.

Let’s not forget that it’s not just the state that’s been invading our privacy for the past thirty years. Ofcom might think it’s absolutely fine to hack the emails of a private citizen but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably not. And I didn’t see many Tory MPs getting their phones hacked by News International.

The only way to secure the right to privacy, which is so essential in guaranteeing our right to free expression, is by renewing our commitment to greater public transparency and respect for the rule of law, guaranteed by a democratically accountable state. At its best government can be a place where a nation comes together to express its highest ideals. That it hasn’t been that for some time is not because it is inherently flawed, but because the institutions of government have been abused.

The great irony is that a nation losing faith in the idea of government benefits the abusers more than anyone. If we are resigned to opacity, our scrutiny looses its edge, if we expect to be betrayed the retribution we exact is dulled, if we  accept corruption our state will always be corrupt. Mitt Romney had a point, if a misdirected one: I like being able to fire those who provide me with services, but I like being able to fire those who govern me more.

We must settle for nothing less than transparency and accountability in our public institutions. That means judicial controls on information, honesty about who knew what, criminal prosecutions for those who have abused their power and a swift exit from office for those who should have supervised them.

But the only entity which can effectively do this is the government because that is the only public entity which is directly responsible to us.

We must make it more responsive, not abandon it. Private companies will never independently or exclusively provide the answers the nation needs because they are not beholden to the nation.

At its best a government is the embodiment of the hopes of a nation. The answer to the revelations of this year is to renew our commitment to democracy because the actions of GCHQ, the Met and News International all boil down to an attack on democracy. And an attack on democracy is an attack on us all.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London

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5 Responses to “The response to the Snowden revelations must be more government, not less”

  1. John Reid says:

    Regarding Orgreave, there was more violence towards the police from miners than the other way round, the police have spied on the BNP and NF, including a gay undercover Officer who used pillow talk against them in the 70’s, several undercover cops against the banal including bugging them at meetings where a nick griffin was recorded saying a black person killed Stephen lawrence, and a failed prosecution for racism that followed ,with juries twice acquitting him, where was the prosecution for a Bernie grant when he said 8 times and 7 others on harrgingey council said a white policeman killed P.C Blakelock, as for the EDl why should police infultrate them, do they brak the law ayou sqid so but that’s Libellous, are they associated with fascist groups the way the likes of UaF or the Nation of Islam tried to steam the Mcpherson inquiry, and were associated with the Lawrence’s, as for fox hunting groups, remind me who was it who were beaten and kettled during the vote outside parliament to ban it,

  2. Sam Fowles says:

    Hi John

    Don’t want to go fact for fact with you on this one. Partly because we could be here forever trading injustices and partly because, even if you’re 100% right, my primary point (that transparency in the public sphere is the only way to ensure individual privacy and this can only be provided by the state, albeit a more accountable and democratic state) still stands. I would also point out that my assertions of facts are backed by links to sources. However, just on your legal point: A statement cannot be defamatory if it is “fair comment”. This means that it must be a statement of opinion and the facts on which that opinion is based must be clear. So to be clear, it is MY OPINION that the EDL probably engage in criminal activity. I base this on the numerous reports of attacks on places of worship accompanied be the spray painted letters “EDL”. For purely legal interest it may be that actual defamation of the EDL impossible due to the political parties defence but I’ll leave that point to better tort lawyers than myself to consider!

  3. swatantra says:

    Marxism 2013 really spelt out the legacy of Thatcherism … broken communities, everywhere, still remembering the onslaught on ordinary workers everywhere by ideological policies. Not only did Thatcher crush the Miners, she managed to destroy the Unions and the Working Class.
    Ed M has given the Unions a chance to look at themselves and a chance to rebuild and a chance to be friends again with the British Public.

  4. John Reid says:

    You are right you can’t libel an organisation, but to say that the EDL as an structured lead organisation commit criminality, only can mean that anyone who’s controlling that organisation commits criminality, but just because there m ay be a EDL slogan painted next to a crime ,as a reason that the police should spy on that organisation, would be comparable to someone writingJustice for Stephen Lawrence campaign on a wall next to a fire bomb, for the police then to spy on the Lawrence’s,

  5. swatantra says:

    Makes sense that our Security Services keep tabs on any dissident groups and and individuals and enemies of the State. Thats what we pay them for.

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