Email surveillance: the political fallout begins

Front pages condemn "snooper's charter", while both Tories and Lib Dems speak out against the bill.

"Snooper's charter will cost YOU £2bn," screams the Daily Mail's headline this morning. The Times goes with the slightly more sober "New law on snooping puts Tories in turmoil", while the Guardian's angle is "Lib Dems threaten rebellion over plans to extend email and phone call surveillance".

Yes, today was another morning of almost universally bad headlines for the coalition, this time over plans to expand the type of communications data stored by telephone and internet providers. Under the proposals, internet service providers would retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year.

While the government is adamant that this will not mean access to the content of messages, merely to data about them, there are question marks over where the line will be. Moreover, it is a significant ramping up of state power from a coalition led by two men who both promised to tackle excessive surveillance while in opposition.

According to the Guardian, senior Liberal Democrats are threatening to rebel, and are seeking clarification from Nick Clegg's office over whether the legislation would allow the intelligence services to access the content of communications without a warrant from the Home Secretary. "No expert I've ever spoken to can see how this could possibly be done without great expense and without allowing access to the actual message that was sent," said Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem MP for Cambridge.

Meanwhile, the Times (£) quotes several Conservatives taking issue with the plans. Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that David Cameron was being hypocritical, and warned of the possible international ramifications: "The government ought to remember why it favoured liberty in opposition. The powers it creates may in future be used by less benevolent administrations." David Davis said it was "an unnecessary extension of the ability of the State to snoop on ordinary people", while Dominic Raab warned of the risk of fraud.

The Home Secretary Theresa May is out defending the proposal this morning, writing in the Sun that it will help to tackle organised crime and terrorism ("Whole paedophile rings, criminal conspiracies and terrorist plots can then be smashed.").

But as the raft of negative front pages and comment pieces shows, this is another media battle that the coalition is losing. Yesterday, I blogged on reports that Tory MPs are frustrated that government policies are not being communicated properly to voters. Today, as ministers fail to articulate an effective response to the Information Commissioner's comment (contained in a previously restricted briefing note) that "the case for the retention of this data still needs to be made", that worry seems justified.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has defended proposals over extending email surveillance. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem