The sceptical side of me kicked in the other day when I read that the new coalition government in the UK had proposed allowing the public to choose which laws ought to get dumped in the brave new ConDemNation. My scepticism is awakened any time I hear the word ‘choice’ used where there is no choice – or where the power of choice doesn’t lie where it sounds like it is supposed to be. Would any government really agree to dump laws such as those covering national security just because people wanted them to? I think we should be more honest. (And it is possible that the word ‘choice’ was a media interpretation of an idea in which the word itself was not used by the politicians themselves – but I have been away and am trying to catch up quickly.)
A good example of this is education. For thirty years we have been told that there is such a thing as ‘parental choice’ – that parents can choose the school to which their children should be sent. This has always been nonsense, but it has raised among parents expectations that cannot be met. The most parents can hope for is to ‘express a preference’. It is governors and the local authority who will choose. It isn’t hard to work out that if everybody wants their child to go to the best schools, some aren’t going to be able to get their way.
However, I have now read the BBC’s digest of the new government’s agreed programme and my heart is cheered in one or two significant respects: the banking levy, consumer protection, alcohol, energy, government transparency and so on. But, the most significant element of the programme comes under the header ‘Civil Liberties’. Mention the word ‘morality’ and everybody thinks of sex (especially in church), but I have argued elsewhere that one of the biggest moral issues facing us is the creeping surveillance culture we have allowed to grow.
One of the most interesting books about this is Timothy Garton Ash’s excellent The File. Having lived and worked in the German Democratic Republic, he decided to ask to see the file kept on him by the Stasi. The book is a record of his personal story of being spied upon and being asked to spy for the Brits (which he declined on more than one occasion). Towards the end of the book he grapples with the moral ambiguity of utilitarianism (ends justifying means) and whether spying on neighbours and friends can ever be justified – even when you think you are on the ‘right side’.
In the context of the recent judgement that an al-Qaida leader in the UK cannot be deported to Pakistan because he might get tortured there, this poses a very immediate dilemma. During his trial evidence from intercepted emails and phone calls was used, but neither the defendant nor his lawyer were allowed to know what that evidence was. Calls for intercept evidence to be used in trials will now get louder – on the grounds that security is not compromised by such disclosure, but a legal system designed to ensure justice must be transparently just.
So, given fears about the all-pervading and seemingly unaccountable surveillance culture in Britain (in London it is estimated that you get photographed around 350 times each day), we can only applaud plans to introduce a Freedom Bill (depending, of course, what it aims to do, how it aims to do it and how far it reaches), scrap ID cards, ditch the National Identity register and the ContactPoint database, and halt the next generation of biometric passports. However did a Labour regime ever allow such illiberal monstrosities to grow? The finger-printing of children at school without parental permission is also to be banned – which begs the question of how it ever came to be allowed in the first place. Other plans include more protections for DNA database, protection of trial by jury, restoration of rights to non-violent protest, a review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech, introduction of safeguards against misuse of anti-terrorism legislation, regulation of CCTV, and a mechanism to prevent the proliferation of “unnecessary” new criminal offences.
The media will no doubt be pleased to see an expansion in the scope of Freedom of Information Act. Wrestling with the morality of exposing and naming those who spied on him, Timothy Garton Ash makes a warning comment in this respect also: that apart from intrusive, but clandestine, security services, the media also transgress the boundary between legitimate reportage and prurient snooping on individuals with the aim of exposing them to public shame. And this from a journalist.
Of all the books I have read on the intelligence world, Garton Ash’s is the best: personal, reflective, questioning and realistic – realistic about human frailty, the impact of circumstance on morality and the subjectivity of moral judgement that is shaped by assumptions of moral objectivity.
As we scrap ID cards and address the other matters of civil liberties, this is an accessible introduction to the issues at hand.