Could this be the birth of a British Tea Party?

Taxpayers’ Alliance seizes on uncertainty in the coalition to press for a grass-roots right-wing mov

The scenes from Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honour" rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC were astonishing. An estimated 87,500 conservative activists gathered in the US capital for a "non-partisan" rally that Beck said was intended to "reclaim the civil rights movement", falling on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech", made from the same spot.

The Tea Party movement is a phenomenal example of grass-roots activism of a kind that just doesn't exist in the UK. But this could be about to change, as it is revealed that the UK low-tax pressure group the Taxpayers' Alliance (TPA) has been taking advice from FreedomWorks, a Washington-based organisation which says it "recruits, educates, trains and mobilises millions of volunteer activists to fight for less government, lower taxes, and more freedom".

Members of both groups attended a conference in London yesterday to transmit the strategy required to build an "insurgent campaign" of UK low-tax lobbyists. Precisely how the Tea Party model might translate to the British political system has not been made clear, but the link forged between the two organisations has received some limited coverage in the national papers.

According to the Telegraph, the TPA has experienced a near-70 per cent rise in its membership over the past year. Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TPA, told the Guardian that the anger at the recent HMRC errors that led to more than a million UK taxpayers being sent demands for backdated tax payments presents a unique opportunity for his organisation. He declared:

You could say our time has come. Take the strikes on the London Underground this week and how much they annoyed and inconvenienced people. Couldn't we get 1,000 people to protest [against] that?

A protest by 1,000 does not make a movement. But the Tea Party has grown from such demonstrations to fielding its own anti-incumbent candidates in the US midterm primaries, at least proving that such a rapid rise is possible, even if the environment in which it happened bears little similarity to that of the UK.

The TPA, however, is not a comparable organisation. In existence since 2004, it lacks the novelty and sheer momentum that have characterised the rise of the Tea Party in the US. A "British Tea Party" was launched by the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan in February, but little seems to have come of it.

For the TPA, being seen to be seeking advice from the media phenomenon that is the Tea Party is very possibly more valuable than the advice itself. However, a significant increase in grass-roots activism in the UK over the coming months is not at all out of the question. With the "big society" near the top of the government's agenda, the political discourse is very much leaning towards a return to localism and community-focused policy.

This is true of Labour, too -- the party's leadership campaign has been conducted in similar terms, the candidates repeatedly referring to their ability to "build a movement" and return control to the grass roots of the party. The clear front-runners, David and Ed Miliband, are no exception; both have referred to themselves as the preferred candidate of the party's grass roots.

With Britain facing an unfamiliar and unpredictable style of government, this could indeed be the high-water mark for groups such as the TPA. As well as left-leaning Liberal Democrats beginning to rebel, we have already begun to see more vocal dissent from the right of the Tory party, especially as issues such as the referendum on AV move up the agenda.

And as the TPA chief executive, Matthew Elliott, is also leading the "No to AV" campaign, his organisation is certainly going to be well placed to exploit growing unease on the right.

It seems more plausible than ever that if the TPA can add a swell of right-leaning popular support, the AV referendum and the local elections, both scheduled for May, could be the crucial turning point for this government.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496