Letter to my Labour MP raising concerns over the Coalition’s bid to ramp up surveillance on citizen’s Net activities, emails, texts etc.

Posted: April 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

Re: Government’s proposed legislation for extending surveillance on Internet use, emails, text messages etc.

Dear Kerry

This proposed legislation troubles me greatly.

First – and of the utmost importance I tender, this legislation would continue an insidious socio-political trajectory that has been in motion in recent years: resort to and acceptance of increasingly intrusive surveillance for citizens to keep watch on one another, and the state on its citizenry. We are already the most surveilled nation in the world via CCTV. This is unhealthy and socially destructive. Typical political rhetoric cites ‘protection of the public’ as justification for increasing surveillance, yet studies have indicated that the effectiveness of CCTV in preventing crime and securing convictions is not nearly as effective as has been assumed. And have we ever had effective regulation, controls and checks on the use of surveillance? What this trajectory really exposes is something that is all too often brushed under the proverbial carpet: trust – the magic ingredient that binds people together and makes society possible – is evaporating. In turn, this is symptomatic of a pervasive moral malaise (and I’m not coming at this from a religious angle), in particular difficulty in attaining clarity and consensus on key substantive-ethical positions. A complex of influences bear on this: the relative demise of religion as a source of moral instruction concomitant with the relative failure of secularism to instil a revised moral sensibility  (though other European countries – France for example – have been significantly more successful in achieving normative normalisation); the pluralistic character of British society, intensifying the challenge of realising moral consensuses; the critical agency of the news media in shaping public perception and attitude – for example the continued exposition of corruption, duplicity and deceit at the top of society (i.e. the people making the rules); and, perhaps most importantly, the morally corrosive effects of neoliberal or laissez-faire capitalism. It was a conundrum for me back in the ’70s and ’80s, and must be more of a conundrum for youngsters today: Who can we trust?; Who or what provides the moral exemplar?; What kind of morality makes sense today?; Why is truth and telling the truth important? Many, especially the older generation, complain about loss of respect for ‘authority’, yet news stories constantly remind us of the abysmal failure of those institutions invested with authority, such as the judiciary and the police, to respect the very principles they are entrusted to embody and defend. Politicians should be exemplars, up to a point, but years of exposure to broken manifesto pledges, underhand and shady government (this government’s reluctance to render lobbying activity transparent is a prime example) – not to mention the expenses scandal, have taken their toll. And now, even whilst it pursues its agenda of empowering a plutocracy of privilege, we are being asked to trust this government with radical new surveillance powers.

I simply don’t believe the claim that this legislation is about ‘protection from terrorism’, unless the term terrorism is being interpreted in a very different way from that understood by most people, which wouldn’t surprise me. This explanation is not at all satisfactory, and as David Davis has been at pains to point out, there are already adequate provisions in place to deal with anyone suspected of terrorist activity, in terms of monitoring Internet use, text messages etc. So the basic rationale is flawed, if the ostensible reason for the legislation is the real one; an ulterior reason is obviously suggested, and David Davis is clear about what this is – a mandate to spy anybody. Regarding the problem of terrorism more fundamentally, I believe that the root causes of specific terrorist activities have to be ascertained before effective solutions can be arrived at. This isn’t likely to be straightforward, and in the case of much Islamic terrorism, I believe the West has to confront the reality that it – through its foreign policies – has been instrumental in creating the conditions that have facilitated extremism and terrorism. Further, confronting that would entail confronting the amorality at the heart of neoliberalist-capitalism, and its consequent destructive effects on people’s lives around the world. Our presence in Afghanistan for example is probably stimulating as much terrorism as it is bloodily removing, if not more. But there’s money to be made by the arms industry etc… There’s no way round it, if we want a world worth living in – moral integrity has to find its way to the heart of political life – it’s the only way to engender trust and respect. We can’t vociferously denounce some regimes and stay virtually silent on or even prop up regimes just as bad if not worse – a pertinent point with regard to al-Qaeda. These extremists depict Western nations as overwhelmingly Godless (amoral) – and the UK is open to that charge. The next Labour government could go a long way to really removing the shadow of terrorism by seriously addressing the plight of the Palestinian people, for example.

Many like to think that what differentiates the United Kingdom from other places around the world is its regard for civil liberties, born of a regard for the sanctity of the human being. We need a personal domain in order to be truly alone with ourselves, find ourselves even – it’s necessary for healthy psychological maturation. ‘If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve nothing to fear’, some say. But this misses the essential point – respect for the human being implies respect for the individual’s choice to demarcate the ‘private’ from ‘open to public view’. Besides, our track record on the misapplication and downright abuse of surveillance powers is not at all reassuring. I’m convinced that if this legislation comes into force, it WILL be abused, unintentionally and intentionally, with social dissidents, people involved in countercultural movements and activities, and (perceived) nonconformist groups of all shades and hues positioned under the spotlight. I’ve personal experience of the abuse of surveillance in this context. This legislation would constitute a significant step towards realising a sinister Orwellian dystopia. But Ed Miliband can take a stand now, and distance himself further from those aspects of New Labour under Blair and Brown that many remember with sorrow and anger. He certainly garnered my respect when he stated that he believed the war in Iraq was not justified because ‘it was not a war of last resort’. This suggests to me that he’s a man of principle. He could sound the death knell on this legislation – but how he responds over the next few days before the Queen’s Speech will probably decide my final view of him, and Labour. Please convey the strength of feeling that exists against this legislation. What position do you take?

Thank you for your time.

I have now received this reply from Kerry McCarthy (I’ve added comments in square brackets):

Dear Mr Oram

Thank you for your email regarding the Government’s proposed reforms of surveillance laws and the potential [‘potential’?] expansion of powers for the security services to monitor a range of personal communications.

Although some details of the Government’s proposals have been reported in the media we do not yet know precisely what measures [but it’s blatantly obvious what they intend to do!] will be brought forward and what new powers the Government is proposing to give to the security services. The lack of clarity in the Government’s proposals has understandably led to fears about the state browsing people’s private emails and internet use [fears, Kerry, based on what Cameron and Co. have stated is their aim (which of course isn’t their true aim) – there’s no confusion]. People want to know what a government database might mean and what safeguards will there be to prevent the state abusing such powers.

The Government has also failed to consult civil liberty groups and opposition parties, and instead has accused organisations such as Liberty and the Labour Party of scaremongering when they have raised legitimate concerns [I haven’t heard anyone in the Labour Party talking about this. Not surprising since it’s an almost exact duplicate of whay they were trying to do].

As the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper has noted, in the past when legislation concerning national security was being considered, opposition parties and civil liberty organisations received extensive briefings from the police and civil servants as well as from Government ministers. This has not happened this time and I do feel that the Government is keeping interested parties and the general public in the dark.

Ed Miliband has already spoken out on this issue, and has said that we need to look closely at any proposals the Government brings forward. The police and security services who are trying to tackle serious terrorist incidents need to be able keep up with modern technology, but, as Yvette Cooper has said, there must be proper safeguards in place to protect people’s privacy.

The Government has said it intends to bring forward proposals to reform surveillance laws in draft form “as soon as possible”. I can confirm that Labour is urging the Government to pull this legislation from the Queen’s Speech [not very conspicuously, obviously], and to start a proper consultation, which looks at how we can strike the right balance between protecting personal freedoms and protecting our country’s national security to ensure that those freedoms do not come under threat. There is no need to rush to legislate.

I can assure you that I will scrutinise whatever proposals are brought forward extremely carefully and will work to ensure that the Government strikes an appropriate balance between protecting individual freedom and our national security.

Yours sincerely

Kerry McCarthy

What to conclude? Well, I’m now writing this after the Queen’s Speech (which of course isn’t her speech) and yep, there’s the legislation. Ed Miliband was predictably critical of the legislative plans as a whole, but he’s been deafeningly silent on the subject of the proposed legislation that is my concern here – now entitled The Draft Communications Bill. Thus, I must reaffirm a conclusion established when Tony Blair was at the helm of (New) Labour, when Clause Four was dropped and other crimes committed – Labour, along with the Tories and Lib Dems, is now squarely positioned within, and an instrument of, the repressive matrix of plutocratic power and control: aka the Establishment. ‘Three cheeks of the same bum’, as George Galloway puts it. Look at the individuals in their respective cabinets – almost all wealthy and privately educated. Today, Labour cannot legitimately claim to be a progressive socialist alternative; today – and wholly characteristic of our postmodern era, where reality implodes into representation – Labour functions as a simulation of a political party concerned with establishing a fairer, more democratic and humane society. True, life under Labour would be marginally less harsh for many, but that marginal difference would only be just enough to maintain the fiction that Labour offers a real and radical alternative, when in fact – as happened during Labour’s thirteen years in government, the real beneficiaries will be elite interests and their agenda of dominance and control. And that’s what this Big Brother legislation is really about. It’s not about fighting terrorism – it’s about strengthening top-down mechanisms of control and unleashing terrorism on free thought, dissension and difference, and the flowering of humanity itself.

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