Kieron O'Hara blogs on the aftermath of the government's proposal and subsequent backing-off of New Labour-style security database measures.
During the Easter holiday, the dust has sort of settled after the argument about civil liberties versus security, particularly with respect to monitoring the Internet for communications – now ‘draft legislation’ as opposed to a ‘policy commitment’.
The liberty/security trade-off has always been a tricky issue, wherever your instincts lie. Personally, I think the value of liberty has been systematically underestimated, and the benefits from snooping overestimated (think of all those crimes where the CCTV footage is irrelevant or of such low quality as to be effectively useless, except for flogging to TV news programmes to increase fear of crime). But I accept that different views from my own are defensible. I also believe that in many cases it should be possible to please both sides with carefully crafted compromises.
The real lesson from this spat is a different one. The last Labour government was completely uninterested in civil liberties (although some of its own backbenchers were commendably independently minded), and both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives were impressive in opposing New Labour schemes for surveillance, ID cards and so on.
The result was quite a meeting of minds, clearly enshrined in the coalition agreement, which states baldly that:
We will be strong in defence of freedom. The Government believes that the British state has become too authoritarian, and that over the past decade it has abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties. We need to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness.
In fact, rhetorically, the coalition was more committed to civil liberties upon election than any government that I can actually remember. Its transparency programme is a world leader. Yet even this government has been captured by those who believe that security is the key value. The very fact that the surveillance scheme to update current powers could have been put forward so prominently in the absence of serious debate (or crisis) indicates the ability of the security lobby to persuade those with ministerial responsibilities.
On many occasions the government has seen fit to ignore the coalition agreement, which must be one of the least authoritative documents in the history of British politics since Chamberlain waved Hitler’s autograph about at Heston Aerodrome. But even so the volte face is stunning (even if the policy is ultimately watered down).
Governments like to govern well, and unsurprisingly like to have the materials for effective government to hand. On this view, privacy is bad (it increases uncertainty about what people are doing or planning to do), individual freedom is bad (it increases the available options for behaviour) and surveillance is good (it gives the government a more complete picture).
This is the real lesson of this imbroglio. Civil liberties generally have little attraction for governments, especially in a world in which the media and voters hold them responsible for any misfortune that may befall. The key split over civil liberties and security is not between left and right, or between liberals and populists.
It is between those who are held responsible for events, and those who are not. In other words, between governments and oppositions. Any promise to increase liberty, however genuinely felt, made by an opposition party, even a firm manifesto commitment, must be taken with a shovelful of salt.
Dr. Kieron O’Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. His latest book, 'Conservatism', was published in May 2011 by Reaktion Books.