The coalition's "surveillance state" problem

Cameron and Clegg's past criticism of state intrusion makes it harder to justify new powers.

Nick Clegg has finally responded to the government's email surveillance plan but not in the way that many Lib Dems will have wanted. He emphasised that the coalition had no plans to monitor the content of emails or to create a central database, adding that the changes were only "updating existing laws that apply to mobile telephone calls to apply to new technology like Skype".

The distinction Clegg makes is an important one. There is a significant difference between access to communications data and access to message content. [Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack compares it to "looking at an envelope rather than opening it"]. That the two have been blurred by the media is further evidence of the government's poor communication strategy. But the proposals, which will require internet service providers to retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year, still represent a significant expansion of state power.

The other problem for Clegg and David Cameron is their past criticism of the "surveillance state". In a June 2009 speech, Cameron declared:

Every month over a thousand surveillance operations are carried out, not just by law enforcement agencies but by other public bodies like councils and quangos. And the tentacles of the state can even rifle through your bins for juicy information.

The Coalition Agreement pledged to "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason." Yet so far ministers have assumed what they have to prove: that the new powers will be put to good use. As the Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, has said: "The case for the retention of this data still needs to be made. The value of historic communications data in criminal investigations has not yet been elucidated." So long as this remains the case, ministers will struggle to command the confidence of the public.

The Coalition Agreement pledged to "end the storage of email records without good reason". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK must reflect on its own role in stoking tension over North Korea

World powers should follow the conciliatory approach of South Korea, not its tempestuous neighbour. 

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has done something which took enormous bravery. As US and North Korean leaders rattle their respective nuclear sabres at one another, Jae-in called for negotiations and a peaceful resolution, rejecting the kind of nationalist and populist response preferred by Trump and Kim Jong-un.

In making this call, Jae-in has chosen the path of most resistance. It is always much easier to call for one party in a conflict to do X or Y than to sit round a table and thrash through the issues at hand. So far the British response has sided largely with the former approach: Theresa May has called on China to clean up the mess while the foreign secretary Boris Johnson has slammed North Korea as “reckless”.

China undoubtedly has a crucial role to play in any solution to the North and South Korean conflict, and addressing the mounting tensions between Pyongyang and Washington but China cannot do it alone. And whilst North Korea’s actions throughout this crisis have indeed been reckless and hugely provocative, the fact that the US has flown nuclear capable bombers close to the North Korean border must also be condemned. We should also acknowledge and reflect on the UK’s own role in stoking the fires of tension: last year the British government sent four Typhoon fighter jets to take part in joint military exercises in the East and South China seas with Japan. On the scale of provocation, that has to rate pretty highly too.

Without being prepared to roll up our sleeves and get involved in complex multilateral negotiations there will never be an end to these international crises. No longer can the US, Britain, France, and Russia attempt to play world police, carving up nations and creating deals behind closed doors as they please. That might have worked in the Cold War era but it’s anachronistic and ineffective now. Any 21st century foreign policy has to take account of all the actors and interests involved.

Our first priority must be to defuse tension. I urge PM May to pledge that she will not send British armed forces to the region, a move that will only inflame relations. We also need to see her use her influence to press both Trump and Jong-un to stop throwing insults at one another across the Pacific Ocean, heightening tensions on both sides.

For this to happen they will both need to see that serious action - as opposed to just words - is being taken by the international community to reach a peaceful solution. Britain can play a major role in achieving this. As a member of the UN Security Council, it can use its position to push for the recommencing of the six party nuclear disarmament talks involving North and South Korea, the US, China, Russia, and Japan. We must also show moral and practical leadership by signing up to and working to enforce the new UN ban on nuclear weapons, ratified on 7 July this year and voted for by 122 nations, and that has to involve putting our own house in order by committing to the decommissioning of Trident whilst making plans now for a post-Trident defence policy. It’s impossible to argue for world peace sat on top of a pile of nuclear weapons. And we need to talk to activists in North and South Korea and the US who are trying to find a peaceful solution to the current conflict and work with them to achieve that goal.

Just as those who lived through the second half of the 20th century grew accustomed to the threat of a nuclear war between the US and Russia, so those of us living in the 21st know that a nuclear strike from the US, North Korea, Iran, or Russia can never be ruled out. If we want to move away from these cyclical crises we have to think and act differently. President Jae-in’s leadership needs to be now be followed by others in the international community. Failure to do so will leave us trapped, subject to repeating crises that leave us vulnerable to all-out nuclear war: a future that is possible and frightening in equal measure.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.