First published in the Independent on Sunday.
The security company in the headlines this weekend may be G4S, but the wider question of whether the military-security establishment has sought to benefit from exploiting the public’s fears about their safety has been brushed under the carpet by politicians who have been equally culpable of the same manipulation.
After 9/11, New Labour subjected the public to regular warnings that an attack was imminent and that we had to trust the Government to make decisions about how our liberty should be protected.
Every decision, every argument, was framed in the context of national security and terror. Ian Huntley and Osama bin Laden became poster boys for a generation of operatives who saw fear as their most successful lobbying tool. Those who opposed increasingly authoritarian policies – from 90-day detention to ID cards – were caricatured as appeasers, not to be trusted or taken seriously.
The invasion of Iraq was pursued on the pretext of protecting British and American national security. Weapons of mass destruction, capable of being launched in 45 minutes, may have turned out to be a work of fiction, but the political advantages and commercial benefits enjoyed by those involved were all too real.
The Blair government may be long gone, but read Home Office press releases and you’d struggle to tell the difference. Even the modest proposal to require local authority officials to seek a court warrant before they enter your home – as contained in the Conservative manifesto – was casually punted into the long grass by way of a two-year review.
From the watering down of proposals to destroy innocent people’s DNA held by the police to the devolution of police powers to civilians, including private security contractors, the impression given is that it is officials schooled by New Labour, not ministers, who are making decisions about which liberties are expendable.
Where does this demand for security come from? Why is it that the people offering services to protect the public are often lobbying publicly and privately about the need for greater investment in security infrastructure. The security industry has managed to co-opt the political class as both their main proponent and their biggest customer.
Fear breeds invention, as the saying goes. And the security industry has been busy inventing – and selling. Walk round any security conference and you’ll be greeted by the kind of glitzy marketing and promotion you might expect at a Formula One event. If marketing is about finding potential customers and then creating demand for your product, the security industry is rapidly becoming a textbook example of how to get rich quick without ever having to test your assumptions.
Since 9/11 an entire industry has sprung up offering services for screening passengers; thousands of body scanners have been installed worldwide; and governments have called for more security staff on planes. These vested interests are not only a commercial force. Civil servants are more than ever using the fear of terrorism and the need to “secure” our borders/children/property/energy to further their own interests.
When David Davis MP coined the term “securocrat”, he illustrated the ability of Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister to hide empire-building behind warnings of the sky falling in. Present events neatly demonstrate how effective this can be. At a time of swingeing government spending cuts, the Home Office has secured £1.8bn for its Communications Capabilities Directorate, the 120-strong team responsible for the draft Communications Data Bill.
Those expecting to know how this money will be spent will be disappointed. Question accountability, feasibility or budgets and you will be told all is in hand, as we once were with the NHS IT project, countless Ministry of Defence sagas and the cost of the Olympics. The Communications Capabilities Development Programme is set to become the first democratic government policy to force communications providers to monitor their customers, and also the first government IT project to come in on budget and work exactly as planned.
Yes, we need to be vigilant, but if we pursue policies that inhibit civil liberties in the short term, we put at risk the same freedoms we are seeking to defend. Not only have we created a climate of fear, we have allowed those with a vested interest to control the debate. Now is the time to challenge those who seek to profit from fear.
Hysterical arguments about paedophiles and terrorists demean both the public and the institutions we trust to keep us safe. Defending the realm means defending the values that have made this country not just a prosperous one but a beacon of liberty that has, and must, shine brightly.
The achievements of the future will not be made possible by more sacrifices of freedoms, but by a willingness to act proportionately in the face of risk. Freedom is never more than a generation away from extinction, Ronald Reagan once said. Let us not be the generation that fails to speak up.
First published on Conservative Home:
I’ve been working in the music industry for the best part of a decade and the animosity that remains towards our party is not dissimilar to the reaction I faced when I was our candidate in Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. I’d spent my whole life there and yet overnight some people I’d played football with as a teenager or worked with in local pubs simply stopped talking to me.
We assume at our peril this is a superficial problem, a relic of a bygone political age. Noel Gallagher’s interview in the Mail on Sunday has been lauded by some as ‘proof’ that Lady Thatcher’s detractors in the North are misguided. Yet it poses a far more complicated question that should remind us why we are a long way from being a viable electoral force in the North, in Scotland and in many urban areas across the country. When those who agree with us would still rather vote for a pirate than vote Conservative, what are we doing to change this?
I grew up in an environment where the main argument about money was that the state took too much. Yes, most Yorkshire folk will generally complain about the price of everything, but the price of Government was an unavoidable part of the political debate.
How could people provide for their families when the state took more and more of your wage? The impetus of low taxes was that if you put the effort in, you would be rewarded. The state wouldn’t get in the way, and you could get on. We won’t force you to work, but don’t complain that those who graft are rewarded more than you.
Work was a noble endeavour, to be respected irrespective of the reward. When the reward for work becomes disconnected from the effort required, you get riots and you get Fred Goodwin.
Then in 1997 the terms of debate changed. Rather than people complaining that they were taxed too much, the Labour party made the debate about people not receiving enough back in benefits. The middle classes came to rely on – and arguably expect – benefits in a way that Thatcher never allowed. It is this cultural shift that now means someone like Noel Gallagher feels the Labour party no longer represents him.That single change did more to keep Labour in power and created the payroll vote that was a very real political consequence of the gargantuan welfare state. No longer a safety net, but a fact of life for three out of every four families.
We as a party have still not challenged this notion. Universal benefits remain a concept that defy logic, but are still a part of the ‘too risky’ policy pile.
The Universal credit will do much to address the administration of benefits, reducing administrative cost, but the terms of debate remain as they were in 1997. We have argued that the welfare bill was too high, but when was the last time we made the argument that lower taxes were the way to encourage work?
More than that, when it comes to Europe, immigration, crime, school discipline and countless other policy areas, people with ‘working class’ backgrounds are absolutely more Conservative than some of the more liberal areas we regard as ‘safe.’ And still they do not vote for us.
In failing to recognise that this barrier to electoral success is more than simply about being seen as a ‘nice’ party and everything to do with how we are not trusted to both reward work and protect the interests of those who work, we do not offer a viable alternative to the thousands of Labour voters who turned out in 2010 and voted for Gordon Brown, but did so reluctantly.
If we accept that the terms of debate are about how much the state should distribute, and that it is easier – and involves fewer policy risks - to win three seats in the south east than ten in the North, then we will never break out of the thirty-something percent bracket. Relying on the unpopularity of our opponents is not a strategy for victory, but a tactic to mitigate the risk of defeat.
Nothing we have done has planted the flag in the North and represented a rallying cry for disillusioned Labour voters. Taking people out of the tax system altogether does not foster responsibility, it perpetuates the same ‘something for nothing’ culture that Labour voters are passionately rejecting. Contribution, however small, shares the burden of social ownership in a way that builds communities.
We have the opportunity to redefine the political landscape that not only offers people like Noel Gallagher a viable alternative, but a social imperative to vote Conservative. To do that requires bold policies and speaking to the values that working people hold true, not just those who voted Conservative in 2010. It absolutely means taking risks.
This cannot – and must not be allowed to – take three years and the selection of candidates. We are in Government, so let us lead the debate.
Slowly, we are waking up to the enormous risk to personal privacy posed by the misuse of personal information.
Big Brother Watch’s report into the data protection breaches in the NHS highlighted a number of harrowing individual cases. However, the wider cultural question is the one which should be of greatest concern.
In an age when ever more personal information is collected as a matter of routine by both the public and private sector, how that information is held and protected is of critical importance. When that information is of the kind of sensitive details found in medical records, lax attitudes towards confidentiality and privacy are unacceptable.
Despite the much publicised decision to scrap the last Government’s NHS IT boondoggle, one element was quietly retained – the Summary Care Record.
As highlighted by our report ‘Broken Records’, this system will allow more than 100,000 non-medical staff access to patient information, with no requirement or check that they have any need to see the contents of a record.
There are clear steps that can be taken. Proper audit trails of who accesses records – assigned to individuals, not terminals – will add accountability, and much more robust training about the importance of privacy.
This kind of measures will help develop a more rigorous and respectful culture around personal information. Equally important is the work being done by a range of groups to highlight the incidents that would otherwise go unreported and to keep up the pressure for more attention to be paid to the problem.
Furthermore, there are two fundamental changes that are of a more serious nature. Firstly, infringing the privacy of someone – be they a patient, customer or marketing database entry – should be treated far more seriously. Verbal warnings and counselling appear frequently in the research we conduct, and only in a small proportion is employment terminated.
Secondly, the penalties under the Data Protection Act are clearly inadequate. The corporate penalty is of insignificance to the large organisations that hold the most information, while individuals are likely to escape with a small fine.
There is also a broader question that should be asked much more frequently – how much information is needed to provide the service in the first place? Big Brother Watch will be talking much more in future about the tendency of organisations in both the public and private sector to harvest as much information as possible. Simply, the greater the volume of information held, the greater the risk to our privacy.
There is one final, legislative step that requires urgent attention. The Justice Select Committee was the latest body to call for prison sentences to be available to judges presiding over cases involving breaches of the Data Protection Act, a move Big Brother Watch had previously said is much needed along with the Information Commissioner.
This power has already been legislated; however it remains to be enacted.
If the Coalition is serious about civil liberties and protecting privacy, delaying further on giving courts the tools to protect our personal information is unforgivable.
Quite possibly the best bit of judicial insight ever in a copyright case. One Spanish judge dismissed the idea that pirated copies are necessarily lost sales, with refreshing clarity.
“it is not possible to determine the damage and corresponding compensation due to loss of benefits to the rightsholder, for the simple reason that customers of pirated copies of music and movies, when making the purchase of pirated copies, externalize their decision not to be customers of music and movies as originals, so there is no profit that could have been gained. In other words, those customers either buy a pirated copy at a low price or they don’t buy an original at a price between 15 and 20 Euros.
In any case, reversing the legal argument, it is conceivable that a customer, after hearing or viewing the pirated copy, may decide to purchase the original, finding it to their taste, so that the sale of pirated copies, far from harming, benefits the market for original items.”
I could hurl abuse, but instead I shall sit, put my iPod on and smile.
Posted: October 6th, 2011
Categories: Ideas for living
Comments: 1 Comment
So, this year I’m heading to both Conservative and Lib Dem conference (all part of ze new job) so it seems fitting to have slightly more tunes than usual to make the train journeys and hangovers pass quicker.
The Rub - Dutch Uncles
AKA…What a life! - Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Miss You - Foster the People
Love Cry - Four Tet
Your Eyes - Bombay Bicycle Club
THe White Flash - Modeselektor
Yr City is a Sucker - LCD Soundsystem
NY Excuse - Soulwax
Jumbo - Underworld
Tonto (live) - Battles
This Orient - Foals
Fictional State - To Kill a King
Heart & Arrow - Danny and the Champions of the World
Blagdon Lake - Beak>
Kitchenette - Grinderman
A.P.O.L.O.G.Y. - Tom Vek
Hey Scenesters! - The Cribs
William Powers - The Maccabees
Babies - Pulp
Our Lady of Lourdes - Paul Smith
England (live) - The National
See You Soon - Coldplay
And it’s on Spotify too you know.
Posted: September 17th, 2011
Categories: Ideas for living
, What I'm listening to
Comments: No Comments
The disclosure that the Government is actively discussing web-blocking will come as no surprise to many following the debate – but the fact that the confirmation had to be secured through an FOI request should be of real concern.
The inclusion of the Digital Economy Act in the wash up dramatically curtailed public debate around the significant powers contained within it. Whatever your views on the copyright and civil liberties issues involved, it was an affront to the democratic process for such a piece of legislation to be rushed through far from the glare of public scrutiny. Furthermore, the resulting legislation suffered massively from a lack of input and debate, in an area of policy that is absolutely central to Britain’s future as a digital knowledge economy.
It should be deeply troubling that the web blocking – and associated issues of net neutrality – are being pursued in a similar fashion. It appears that the rights holders group (which includes the BPI, UK Music, the Publishers’ Association and the Premier League; plus Google, Yahoo! BT, Virgin and TalkTalk) is already setting the narrative for the debate, with minimal input from outside groups.
There are a myriad of technical issues, civil liberties questions and economic development concerns associated with web blocking and the state taking on a role of internet censorship, many of which will be discussed on this blog in future.
However, the pressing challenge is simply to open up the debate on web blocking before it is too late and vested interests once again prevail.
Earlier this week, Ed Miliband took to twitter for a Q&A session under the hashtag #askEdM.
So did a number of activists who were certainly not EdMili supporters. The Mail in particular highlighted this claiming Ed’s session had ‘backfired’. They were part of the camp that thought somehow the questions put to Ed would damage him. They included whether he felt “bad about stabbing your brother in the back?” “Why don’t you buy some Vicks?” “Was Brutus an Honourable Man? Discuss.”
The result? Lots of folk proclaiming success (on both sides) and lots of Westminster bubble noise about how brilliant the idea was. It’s seemed to me that the anti-Ed brigade has managed to drum up more media coverage and (in a rather self-congratulatory way) mocked the people who had the idea in the first place.
My view? I’ve better things to do with my time than send inane questions to the leader of the opposition on Twitter. (This to me definitely falls into the ‘twatter’ category) More to the point, it’s entirely laudable and as US politics (and more recently Mumsnet politics) has shown, reaching out online (if done like a normal, coherent human and not Gordon Brown) can actually improve political dialogue and win new support.
Not one of the ‘funny’ questions will win the tories a single vote. Moreso, if Labour’s comms team wasn’t totally incompetent, they’d have been hailing Ed’s resolve in sticking with it in spite of the ‘nasty’ and ‘juvenile’ efforts of others to disrupt a genuinely open minded coversation that Ed was reaching out with. (as evidenced, however weakly, by Ed responding to some of the negative questions.)
Social media is an opportunity to re-engage people who have been forgotten or neglected by recent political events. It’s also an opportunity to behave like petty schoolchildren infront of a worldwide audience. On one side of that line you can shape the future, while on the other you can complain you don’t like what’s happening.
This is a classic case of the Westminster bubble being very excitable about not very much, and the rest of the country watching on asking what on earth everyone is babbling on about and when they’ll start talking about things that really matter.
The UK Government is currently considering the possibility of a UK-wide firewall, which (simply put) would give the Government the ability to block access to websites from the UK.
The argument has mainly been made around file-sharing sites, and to a lesser extent child pornography, and of course the Government insists that it would never be used for political reasons.
Yet the example of the Arab Spring and the subsequent activities of Governments in shutting down social networking sites (or more disturbingly, setting up spoof sites to entrap potential trouble makers) should not be forgotten.
It is entirely possible that as part of the super-injunction/privacy debate that website blocking could potentially be on the cards - neatly demonstrated by the High Court judge who warned “the internet is out of control.”
The internet is beyond the reach of Governments. So the natural response of Governments is to seek to bring it back under their control. The first step is to block sites sharing illegal music. That path leads to not being able to read about Tienanmen Square or organise demonstrations - it is not one that a civil society should permit.
However, there is a further option - for social networks to become ISPs.
The power of a shared satellite network, providing internet access to users without reliance on physical cable under the control of Governments, would have the potential to topple the Great Firewall of China, free protestors to organise demonstrations and globalise free speech beyond the reach of overactive judiciaries.
Eventually, universal internet access will be a humanitarian cause. What it needs is someone to take the first step, and aim for the stars.
Today, yet another well versed report calls for a significant re-think of the ‘war on drugs.’
The usual establishment knee-jerk reaction has its roots in 1920s prohibition and moral panic - yet continually fails to recognise the fallacy of both.
Looking back to August 11, 1932 when Herbert Hoover accepted the Republican nomination for President, he was clear what was needed.
“Now, our objective must be a sane solution, not a blind leap back to old evils.”
It remains as true today as it was then. Constitutional amendments were required to end prohibition - I fear far more will be needed to end the war on drugs.
Posted: June 2nd, 2011
Categories: Campaign Issues
, Ideas for living
Comments: No Comments