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.