[DEBATE] : FW: Britain is slithering down the road towards a police state
okhela at iafrica.com
Wed Feb 6 19:05:56 GMT 2008
Britain is slithering down the road towards a police state
The pretence of oversight has been ripped aside by the Khan bugging affair:
the security apparat has become a law unto itself
Wednesday February 6, 2008
The Guardian <http://www.guardian.co.uk>
The machine is out of control. Personal surveillance in Britain is so
extensive that no democratic oversight is remotely plausible. Some 800
organisations, including the police, the revenue, local and central
government, demanded (and almost always got) 253,000 intrusions on citizen
privacy in the last recorded year, 2006. This is way beyond that of any
other country in the free world.
The Sadiq Khan affair has killed stone dead the thesis, beloved of Tony
Blair and Gordon Brown, that any accretion of power to the state is
sustainable because ministers are in control. Whether this applies to phone
tapping, bugging devices, ID cards, NHS records, childcare computer systems,
video surveillance or detention without trial, it is simply a lie. Nobody
can control this torrent of intrusion. Nobody can oversee a burst dam.
Khan, an MP and government whip, was allegedly targeted by the police for
having been a "civil rights lawyer" and thus a nuisance, though the
recording of his meetings with a constituent in prison was supposedly
directed at the inmate. Either way, the bugging destroyed the "Wilson
doctrine", that MPs cannot be bugged. It appears that they can if ministers,
or the police, so decide.
Security machismo claims that in the "age of terrorism", real men bug
everyone and everything. The former flying squad chief and BBC dial-a-quote,
John O'Connor, implied this week that it would be negligent of the police
not to bug anyone they - repeat they - thought a threat. The Blair thesis
that "9/11 changes everything" has been a green light to every security
consultant, surveillance salesman and Labour minister wanting to flex his -
or her- muscles in the tabloids.
Years ago a lawyer gave me unassailable evidence that a call with a client
had been tapped by the police and handed to the prosecution. Such tapping
allegedly required a personal warrant from the home secretary who, when
tackled on the subject, flatly denied it could have happened without his
approval, which he would never give in such a case. I checked back with a
police chief, who roared with laughter. "The home secretary is absolutely
right. He must authorise all taps sent to him for authorisation. But not, of
course, the rest." Orwell's cuttlefish were squirting ink.
The grim reality of the past week alone is that it has seen a substantial
section of the British establishment allowing itself to believe that private
dealings between lawyer and client, and between MP and constituent, should
no longer be considered immune from state surveillance. A cardinal principle
of a free democracy is thus coolly abandoned. It is not a victory for
national security. It is a victory for terrorism.
The monitoring organisation Privacy International now gives Britain the
worst record in Europe for such intrusion, indeed the worst among the
so-called democratic world and on a par with "endemic surveillance
societies", such as Russia and Singapore. The Thames Valley policeman, Mark
Kearney, who bugged Khan's conversation in Woodhill prison, claims to have
protested that it was "unethical" but was overruled and placed under
"significant pressure" from the Metropolitan police. He has since had to
leave the force. The saga reads like a script from the film about East
German espionage, The Lives of Others.
Britain's poor record is the result of government weakness towards the
security apparat. Even among supposed liberals, the response is to demand
not less surveillance but more oversight. David Davis, the Tory spokesman,
said yesterday: "It's got to be controlled; it's got to be accountable."
Civil rights champion Liberty wants "simpler and stronger surveillance laws,
with warrants issued by judges, not policemen nor politicians".
People have been saying this for years. Britain has a Kafkaesque oversight
bureaucracy ranking with the one it purports to oversee. Some six separate
surveillance monitors trip over themselves. All operate in secret and appear
to be one gigantic rubber stamp. The distinction drawn by the justice
secretary, Jack Straw, between "intrusive" and "directed" bugging,
illustrates the prevailing mumbo-jumbo. The chief surveillance monitor, Sir
Christopher Rose, has been asked by Straw to investigate the Khan affair,
which appears to be a failure by the chief surveillance monitor. Is this to
be taken seriously?
When the council can bug you for fly-tipping, when prisons can record
conversations with defence lawyers, when any potentially criminal act can
justify electronic intrusion - and when ministers resort to the dictator's
excuse, "The innocent need not fear" - warning bells should sound.
There is no "balance" to be struck between civil liberty and national
security. Civil liberty is absolute, security its handmaid. Measures are
needed to protect the public, but a firm line needs to be drawn round them.
The line must accept a degree of risk, or a police state is just around the
A quarter of a million surveillances in Britain are beyond all power of
politicians or overseers to check. It is state paranoia, justified only by
that catch-all, the "war on terror". In truth it is not countering terror,
but promoting it. Mass surveillances one of the poisons that the terrorist
seeks to inject into the veins of civil society.
It is clear the overseers have gone native. Even the "independent" security
watchdog, Lord Carlile, has bought 42-day detention. More oversight will not
cure surveillance but mask its spread. The extension from terrorism to
benefit fraud, fly-tipping and trading standards demonstrates how the
official mind flips to Stasi mode at the least excuse.
To claim that Britain is a police state insults those who are victims of
real ones. But I have no doubt that feeble ministers are slithering down
just this road, pushed by the security/industrial complex. It is not
oversight that must be increased, but rather the categories and boundaries
of surveillance that must be drastically curbed.
Of course there are people who want to explode bombs in Britain. Taxpayers
spend a fortune trying to stop them. But how often must we remind ourselves
that the bomber need not kill to achieve his end when we appease his
yearning for the martyrdom of repression? The amount of surveillance in
Britain is grotesque. It is a sign of the corruption of power, and nothing
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