Back in 2008, Labour’s Jacqui Smith explained why it was ‘vital’ to monitor email, internet and other communication use. That plan was eventually dumped, though its ghost has been hanging around Westminster and GCHQ for some time. Somebody called ‘Chris Huhne’ (where he now?) slammed the plans as being “incompatible” with living in a free country. Back in 2009, Jo Swinson rightly criticised plans to snoop on social media users.
But what now for these Liberal Democrat MPs, and others, who are not in Opposition any more, as time has moved on and plans to create databases of everything typed, texted and crammed into 140 characters is drawn up by Coalition partners? To what extent has the dynamic changed between the instinctive liberal belief in civil liberties and the responsibilities inherent in being the junior partner in a Government? One hopes the dynamic has not changed at all: all Liberal Democrat MPs, regardless of proximity to the Cabinet table, must reject these proposals outright.
Labour have little wiggle room with this. The party who came up with the plans in the first place have an embarrassing record on civil liberties and freedom of speech, regarding these as optional extras. Under Blair and Brown, Labour were amongst the most authoritarian government this country has ever seen – ID Cards, DNA database, locking up children without charge and driving tanks onto the tarmac of Heathrow airport in the name of ‘counter terrorism’. Successive Home Secretaries attempted to outdo each other in their ‘tough stance’ on civil liberties, out-Torying each other as they went. John Reid relished becoming more of a Conservative Home Secretary than any of his predecessors, concluding that the ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office should be beefed up, toughened out. Labour were enemies of civil liberties, making the decision by Theresa May to scrap controversial stop and search laws and control orders within months of coming into power all the more remarkable – when the Conservatives are in charge relaxing civil liberty laws, you should be worried about the extent to which you were extreme.
This snooping law proposal is obscene, a return to the dark Labour days, and must be resisted. The ‘internet community’ showed how dangerous SOPA laws would be for intellectual properties; it must now do the same for freedom of expression. “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is an obscene parody of the danger inherent in these plans. GCHQ is unaccountable, unreachable, yet Ministers feel it right to allow the tentacles of that agency to reach out of your phones, laptops and tablet devices like so many scenes from 1980s horror movies: licking your ears, sewing up your mouths, stealing the words from your fingers as you type. This is not “safeguarding freedom”, this is theft of your thoughts, your ideas, your opinions. There can be nothing more idiotic than this concept of ‘safeguarding’ by way of making freedom less certain, less secure. Remember the lie “if we change our way of life, the terrorists win?”. This would be the terrorists “winning”.
The words of George Orwell are so often invoked in cases like that so as to lessen the impact. Make no mistake about the lessons from history, especially those written not solely as fiction but as a warning.
I am liberal by instinct (you wouldn’t want to choose being liberal, it’s like consciously choosing to be gay or an Aston Villa supporter). My suspicion about Governments of all colours comes from their actions – as their words are often blocked by FOI requests and firewalls. Labour were rightly beaten by good sense and reason as they continued their assault on freedom of speech, but the Hydra in Westminster tends to have skin which is coloured red and blue: one hopes, beyond all hope, that there’s no orange. Liberal Democrat MPs must ensure these proposals are voted down and out at every opportunity. Not just on the broad brush “freedom of expression” motion but from each and every angle – legitimacy, cost, reason, sense, achievement. How can this forever morphing ‘war on terror’ have shaped itself into an attack on the millions of innocent British people using email, chat rooms, message boards, Twitter? What justification can there be to ‘root out’ the bad guys by having everyone clicked ‘suspicious’ like so many Minesweeper boxes flagged for uncertainty?
This has not been a good few weeks for the Coalition, so anything which manages to knock down the reputation yet further must be a hum-dinger of a plan. This stinks to the highest heavens from the lowest sewers of the Big Brother tendencies within the Home Office. We’ve been here too many times recently, the shadow of ‘terrorism’ seeping into proposals like so much bonfire smoke in the eyes. We cannot allow this plan to happen – it’s disproportionate, it’s alien to British values and it’s just plain old damned wrong. Real time monitoring of conversations – just read that phrase out loud! – is not the act of a Government that respects its people. It’s the act of a Government out of control. We are a better people than that. Resistance must start now.