My last post on the alcohol minimum-pricing scheme considered an apparent contradiction of this liberal-conservative government’s principles, given that the policy appeared to display a new-found faith in the state’s power to correct problems in society. This week brings another, potentially more sinister, example, relating to security and the threat from terrorism.
New plans by the government will allow security services, including the intelligence monitoring agency, GCHQ, to collect data on all electronic communications. Currently, this would require special authority, but Lib Dems are apparently seeking assurances from Nick Clegg that the proposal will not mean everyone’s data can be tracked and stored. Indeed, if it doesn’t mean that, then why is it necessary to change from the status quo? In any case, according to the Guardian, Whitehall sources have confirmed that GCHQ will be able to access data “on demand” and in “real-time”.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has claimed that these new powers will be vital for stopping criminals. Such talk makes it sound as though criminals aren’t already being caught in this country. Moreover, she uses examples of how the tracking of communications data has helped in previous convictions; the specific, emotive example that she used was of Ian Huntley, the notorious Soham murderer. That in itself doesn’t mean expanding the system to encroach on the privacy of innocent people is necessary though: rather, that it might be useful when someone is suspected of plotting or committing a heinous crime. In which case, the data is collected as it is.
The policy does seem very much like a throwback to the days of Tony Blair and his efforts to curb civil liberties in the face of the threat of terrorism (something, incidentally, that he asserts in his autobiography to be a price that must be paid if the threat is to be defeated). But this is from a government that made a pledge to respect civil liberties, and used the previous Labour government’s policies in this area as a stick with which to beat it.
My concern here, however, is not whether the policy is right or wrong, effective or useless. I simply wish to highlight yet another brazen act of governmental hypocrisy: once again, state power is being expanded. And in this case, it is not just an ideological problem that mainly political theorists or those particularly concerned with intellectual consistency would pick up on. It actually seems to contradict the coalition government’s stated agreement (for which, I might add, no-one voted). Point number 10 of the Coalition Agreement states:
The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion.
In addition, the penultimate bullet point in this section actually says that this involves: “Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.”
I am sure the government knows a lot more than we do about the threat from terrorism. It could be that Ms May cannot reveal why she feels this policy is necessary. Still, it is ironic that she claims “ordinary people” have nothing to fear, for this was precisely the same line taken by Mr Blair.
The most revealing thing though is that just two years after signing a document that would trump the parties’ respective manifestoes, the government is flatly contradicting it. Power, it seems, always needs to be scrutinised to be kept consistent, and on the straight path. Maybe ordinary people do have something to fear after all.