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An imaginary emergency

As the rest of the world becomes more skeptical about mass surveillance, there is one country where it is seldom ever mentioned, except to babble about the need for more of it. The country that the romantic conservative Daniel Hannan says “invented freedom“: Britain.

The latest symptom of the “polite and commercial people” of Britain’s complacent unconcern with freedom and privacy is emergency legislation to be passed through all parliamentary stages early next week, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill or Act, as we shall have to call it almost immediately. There is little doubt this will happen. All three major parties are agreed they will drive it through.

The “emergency” is a confection. It is ostensibly because of a legal challenge to regulations under an EU directive which was invalidated by the European Court of Justice – which took place in April. So obviously it has to be dealt with by hurried legislation to be passed without scrutiny and not even adumbrated in public till Wednesday. This is the order of events:

  • 8th April – ECJ declares Data Retention Directive 2006/24/EC invalid – in theory telcos and ISPs no longer required to gather certain data
  • …wait for it…
  • 7th July – Rumours surface in the press that “something will be done”
  • 9th July – The Sun in the afternoon carries a “security beat privacy” piece boosting the scheme as the only way to beat terrorists and paedophiles.
  • 10th July,  8am – Emergency cabinet meeting briefs senior ministers.
  • 10th July,  11.18am – Bill becomes available on gov.uk website (still not available via parliament), Home Secretary makes statement in parliament.
  • 11th July (Friday), 4pm – Draft regulations to be made under the Bill as soon as it is enacted made available.
  • 15th July (Tuesday) – All House of Commons Stages of the Bill (normally about 4 months).

The pretext, reinstating these regulations (which the Home Office has claimed are still subsisting in the UK anyway) is hard to accept as “vital”. Other countries manage fine without them, and they only existed at all because of some bullying by the UK of other EU states after the 7th July 2005 bombings. I covered this background in an article for City AM written on Thursday. But since then we have had a chance to read what is proposed.

Reinstating the regulations – or anchoring them against legal challenge, since they are still operating – would be simple. The new Bill need only say that parliament enacts the content of the regulations as primary Act of the UK parliament. I wouldn’t be pleased. But it would be doing what was required by the ostensible emergency. That however is not what is happening. The new Bill would broaden the regulations and the scope of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act under which most state snooping in Britain is conducted and give the Home Secretary powers radically to expand the data required, by further regulations. It is a move in the direction of the supercharged surveillance regime set out in the Communications Data Bill, which was dropped as too controversial ante-Snowden. The clearest detailed analysis is by David Allen Green in the FT, he says:

The removals of civil liberties, and the encroachments of the state, are rarely sudden and dramatic. It is often a subtle change of legal form here, and the deft widening of legal definitions there. And before one knows it, the overall legal regime has changed to the advantage of officials and the otherwise powerful, and all we have done is nod-along as it happens.

I fear it is worse than that. Politicians and press have been so comprehensively suckered that some who would normally stand up for civil liberties are burbling about how “it offers [the] chance to bring rise of surveillance state under democratic control”. DRIP.

The Liberal Democrat politicians who have been most reliable n this topic all appear to have been bought off with a sunset clause and the ludicrous promise of “a review”, even though they have now had several years of experience of arrant avoidance of their questions by the intelligence services. DRIP

Even this cannot persuade them that the security state (sometimes called the “deep state”, though that flatters its dysfunctional smugness) is mocking them. DRIP.

Our permanent establishment in Whitehall treats ministers with condescension, and mere parliamentarians with the same contempt it reserves for ordinary citizens. But those in public life need to believe the state is their honest servant. DRIPS!

22 comments to An imaginary emergency

  • DRAIPB – obviously they would prefer you not remember this one.

  • Well OK. You like DRIP. That is reasonable. But FYTW might be a better name.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I didn’t know they could just drop the multiple readings and passage to the second house normally required of a bill when it suited them.

    When did this happen? Someone should phone the Queen and she should kick their assess……

  • Someone should phone the Queen and she should kick their assess……

    Sadly it does not really work that way.

  • Guy Herbert (London)

    They don’t drop them. They just do them all in the one day. one after the other.

    Since Blair ALL commons debate has been timetabled (once called ‘guillotine’, and itself something of an emergency measure), even while spread over a few months, so the commons has become increasingly useless to those who want to challenge legislation (and backbench ‘rebellions’ have become far more frequent, but far less important). All serious opposition happens in the Lords.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Well, you Britons are subjects rather than citizens, so you get subjugated. What else did you expect? Even the Soviets eventually showed more fight.

  • Guy Herbert (London)

    “[Y]ou Britons are subjects rather than citizens” – like many commonplaces of the web, this is a non-fact spread. Curiously many soi-disant constitutional reformers in the UK seem to believe it, too, so foreigners can be forgiven for picking it up.

  • Derek Buxton

    Were we not Subjects of the Monarch until our Country was given away to the EU who claimed us all as its “citizens”. A description I hate but regretably have to live with. That was an end to all our freedoms gained over many years.

  • Folks in the USA actually have a better claim to being ‘subjects‘ these days than Brits do really. I would prefer Brits go back to being called ‘subjects’ as in truth I think ‘subject’ is a far more honest description of the relationship between an individual and the state under whose rules they live.

    But this latest assault does not exactly come as a surprise. The only surprise is the degree of support and the wilful daftness of some people who might have been expected to know better. But this well and truly demolishes the notion the libdems can be relied upon for anything useful.

  • Paul Marks

    “A Polite and Commercial People” – I remember that book.

    Of course it is about an age (the 18th century) when the people of this island were very concerned about freedom indeed.

    However, even in the 19th century that was in decline – with the idea that “law” was just the will of the state (Hobbes)becoming normal, and even the idea of human agency (“free will” the ability to make real choices) sneered at by the educated elite.

    The 18th century (the age of Edmund Burke and co) was long ago.

    Even in the United States what proportion of the educated elite believe in the Bill of Rights (for example the Second Amendment and the Tenth Amendment) or the philosophical principles upon which it is based – the principles of such men as Thomas Reid and Ralph Cudworth (a 17th thinker much read in the 18th century, but forgotten in the 19th century)?

    The decline of freedom starts with the mockery (or the ignoring) of the philosophical principles upon which it is based.

  • Laird

    A little bit o/t, but I just watched a sci fi movie called “Eyeborgs” about the panopticon state, which was less stupid than most such. The premise is that state surveillance has become totally ubiquitous (even private security systems are linked in), mobile security “bots” have been invented, and weaponized, and then (of course) the system becomes self-aware (Skynet, anyone?) and out to take over the world. It’s actually very critical of mass surveillance and the fools who think it’s a good thing and “for their safety”. It surprised me on several levels.

  • Schrodinger's Dog

    Isn’t the horrible truth – at least for those of us of a libertarian disposition – that most people in the UK regard the state as their friend, protector and provider. They trust it implicitly and believe it should do more, oftentimes far more.

    From a historical viewpoint, unfortunately, this makes at least some sense: Britain has had several centuries of basically benevolent, democratic government. By contrast, all of continental Europe, except for Switzerland, as well as places like Brazil, South Korea and Taiwan, were dictatorships within living memory. A heritage like that will naturally make people suspicious of the government. In America, the narrative is different: the country has never been a dictatorship, but was born out of a rebellion against an overreaching king. People were encouraged to take a pride in this, which naturally led to a suspicion of the state, expressed in the use of the phrase “big government” as a term of contempt.

  • What is needed, first of all, is proper parliamentary debate about this. Disregarding the “emergency” nature of this bill even, we have procedural rules in the House of Commons introduced by Mr Blair (as Guy outlines above) that are actually intended to prevent this from ever happening. Truly, a curse upon the man. Never have i seen an elected leader in a democracy with as overwhelmingly authoritarian instincts as that man (and this is saying something).

  • Nick (Blame FrenchMEN) Gray

    In books on languages, the ‘subject’ is usually doing things to the ‘object’, so ‘subject’ can imply action. A citizen, though, is already supposed to enjoy full benefits, and so has nothing to reject and rebel against.
    What is the deal with the House of Lords? Didn’t Blair disempower them a while back? Are they all appointed by the government of the day now?

  • Guy Herbert (London)

    No. Being a Lord is for life. So, although Mr Blair had more lords created than any PM in history, and although he reduced the hereditary element from several hundred to 1, plus 1 office-holder, plus 90 selected by them from among their number, no-one can stop a peer from having his or her own opinion, and they often do.

  • …and then we will have function creep – the gradual widening of the use of a technology or system beyond the purpose for which it was originally intended, esp when this leads to potential invasion of privacy.
    The same thing happened with the Prum Treaty.

  • RogerC

    I agree with Schrodinger’s. People here like the state. It hasn’t done anything really egregious to them, in a rounding-people-up sort of way, for quite some time. It provides them with “free” bennies like the NHS. They cannot imagine living any other way.

    Case in point: My father-in-law’s recent illness and his treatment by the NHS. We found ourselves fighting against the clinical staff, who sedated him to the point that he couldn’t do the physio he needed to recover. At one point they were convinced he had a hospital acquired infection which was not responding to treatment and had shuffled him off into a side room, presumably to die. Had it not been for my wife overhearing, purely by chance, that he’d been put on a new medication which they hadn’t told us about and which coincided with the onset of the symptoms of his “infection”, and had we not made ourselves the absolute bloody nuisances that we did until we finally managed to speak to a consultant (who told us that yes, in rare cases it can have that effect and yes, I suppose we could try taking him off it now that I think about it…), I’m convinced they’d have killed him.

    My father was present for most of this and aware of all of it. He was in full agreement that the treatment my father-in-law had received was poor to the point of being life threatening. Yet in the next breath, he defended the NHS as a wonderful institution. He just couldn’t imagine any other way to do healthcare that wouldn’t leave the least well off dying in the gutter.

    He didn’t change his mind even after it was revealed that the NHS wouldn’t fund nursing care for a man in his 90’s who was 50% paralysed and had difficulty speaking or swallowing. Not a severe enough case, apparently. God knows what sort of state you’d have to be in to qualify. The end result was that we had to sell his house to pay for it – exactly the result my father feared from a private healthcare system, but apparently it’s different when the NHS does it.

    Respect for the state seems to be so ingrained that while people can see the individual injustices, they never see the state itself as the cause of the problem. On the contrary, calls to ban this or support that seem to be everywhere.

  • Derek Buxton

    I tend to agree with Roger C, up to a point. I regard the government as my enemy, first they want all my money, next they will want my body. As to the NHS, I am old enough to remember the times before the NHS was even thought of. We got better treatment than we get now and much more quickly. If you were ill in bed the Doctor would visit you very quickly, and if you had been in hospital, when you came out your Doctor would visit without being asked. I was discharged last year after two operations, sent home after two weeks and never heard from my GP at all.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Schrodinger’s Dog and RogerC are right, but they don’t ask why everyone in Britain (well nearly everyone) loves the State so. imho it’s because they are taught to, more or less from birth, by the state’s education system (wholly and entirely in the hands of the Left), and the state’s broadcaster – the bbc, about which no more need be said here.

    Which is why it’s a disaster (stay with me here, I am not really going OT) that Michael Gove has been sacked from the Education Minister job: he is the only politician of modern times even to attempt to roll back the left’s domination of state education in the UK. Even Mrs. Thatcher never laid a glove on these people (she might have done, given more time, but that is history); Gove had made a start – as can be proven by the outraged and ferocious opposition he encountered from the vested interests – NOBODY has ever challenged them before. And now he’s gone, in all likelihood nobody will ever challenge them again. And the love of the State and all its works will remain and grow.

    I too have acquaintances who, whilst aware of and loudly bewailing the many many failings of the NHS, and the un-necessary deaths – sometimes thousands of deaths – that it causes, will in the very next sentence say something like “but aren’t we lucky to have it, if it wasn’t for the NHS I’d be bankrupt and dead” or some such piffle. They are so brainwashed that they cannot even conceive that there might be any other way of organizing things – even though alternatives are all around us, and all of them without exception produce better outcomes. Astonishing.

  • Paul Marks


    I do not believe that Mr Gove’s effort to make government financed schools as good as private schools was possible – but he was clearly a sincere man who really cared (passionately) about education. His removal (so that Mr Cameron could have less trouble with the leftist establishment – and be able to boast “look I have got more women in the cabinet”) is profoundly depressing.

  • Paul Marks

    I should add that I mean no disrespect to Mrs Morgan. My problem is with what Mr Cameron has done and why he has done it – NOT with Mrs Morgan.