Show Hide image

I wonder what my younger self would’ve made of the House of Lords – and its hairdryers

It was grand and archaic but it reminded me of nothing so much as a giant, souped-up parish council meeting.

The Norman porch of the House of Lords. Photo: Getty

I sat in the House of Lords the other day. Ben and I went for lunch with his godfather, the actor Brian Rix, now Lord Rix, who at 90 years old is still the funniest of men and great company. After we’d eaten, Brian gave us a guided tour, ending at the door of the actual House. A few whispered words were exchanged with a security guard – I swear I heard the phrase “Everything but the Girl” muttered under his breath – and we were ushered through the giant, Hogwarts-like oak door and on to two chairs at the back of the chamber, from where we gazed at the red padded benches, the gold throne and Lord Sir Alan Sugar asking a question about VAT.

Though we stayed for all of five minutes, it was bizarre and thrilling to be there and, slightly tipsy from lunch (as, I imagine, were most of the peers), I felt indulgent and benevolent about the set-up. It was grand and archaic but it reminded me of nothing so much as a giant, souped-up parish council meeting. The aged fustiness of the surroundings and participants added to this impression: during the time we sat there, I heard no one say anything comprehensible and you could easily believe that they were all engaged in some dreary matter of local business – planning permission for the golf club, or the relocation of an incinerator.

Following Brian’s signal, we crept out, stopping on the way to pat the bouncy sniffer dog, which an hour earlier had been checking the empty chamber. (For explosives? Drugs?) Then I went to the loo, behind another heavy oak door, this time marked “Women Peers”. There were two hairdryers plugged in beside the sinks. I pictured rain-drenched baronesses gratefully smartening up their perms before taking their seats. Useful to have a hairdryer there, of course, but there was also something makeshift about it – practical but unstylish, like those pictures you see of the inside of Buckingham Palace, with a two-bar electric heater sitting stranded in an 18th-century marble fireplace.

At dinner that evening, the kids asked me how you got to be in the House of Lords and what the lords did and, as so often on these occasions, I found under questioning that my knowledge was sketchier than I might like to think and blustered through some plausible-sounding answers. What most impressed them was our sighting of Mr Apprentice and they were delighted by the descriptions of waiters constantly addressing Brian as “M’lord”, especially since at one point it seemed as though one of them had directed the phrase at Ben.

Later, on the news, we saw that there had been a protest that day outside the House of Commons; there were scenes of people gathered in the spring sunshine, all holding banners and placards, protesting about NHS cuts. “Oh, dear God,” I said to Ben, “there’s going to be a shot of us in a minute, dressed up to the nines, sweeping past these poor protesters as we swan through the peers’ entrance like a couple of absolute arseholes.”

Thankfully there wasn’t but it gave me pause for thought. Bob Crow had died earlier that day – we’d heard the news just before we set off for our lunch with Brian – and I had been genuinely sad. Often when seeing him interviewed I had said, “He really is of a dying breed and I’m sorry there aren’t still more like him.” What I meant was that he seemed from an era that was almost gone but that I am old enough to remember: of working-class warriors, lefties who looked and talked like proper lefties, who stood for something clear and identifiable and weren’t ashamed to do so.

But my younger self, who first formed those kinds of ideas – discovering socialism in my teens through the NME and Rock Against Racism, writing feminist songs at Hull University and playing Red Wedge gigs in the early Eighties with Ben – what would she have made of me sitting politely in a posh frock and heels in the House of Lords chamber, having thoroughly enjoyed lunch in the formal dining room and a wee in what was, quite literally, the Ladies? She’d have objected, probably: maybe refused on principle to creep through that door and sit on that chair. She would have missed quite an experience. 

 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Mass surveillance doesn’t work – it’s time to go back to the drawing board

Lacking an answer to the problem of radicalisation, the government has confused tactics with strategy.

This week saw the release of not one but two parliamentary reports on the government’s proposed new spying law, the first from the Intelligence and Security Committee and the second from the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill.

Both reports suggested the government hasn’t fully made the case for some elements of mass surveillance put forward in the Bill. But neither went so far as to ask the most important question in this debate – does mass surveillance actually work?

The proposed law, known as the Investigatory Powers Bill, looks set to enshrine almost all the government’s mass surveillance powers and capabilities in a single law for the first time. It has been touted by the Prime Minister as a vital weapon in the UK’s fight against Islamic State.

Most of the noise about mass surveillance since the Snowden revelations has predictably come from civil liberties groups. But the privacy and safeguards debate skips over the highly dubious assumption underpinning the Investigatory Powers Bill – that mass surveillance will stop terrorists.

In fact, mass surveillance is not only ineffective but downright counter-productive.

A 2009 report by the US government found that only 1.2 per cent of tips provided to the FBI by mass surveillance techniques made a significant contribution to counter-terrorism efforts. Another recent study by the New America Foundation found that National Security Agency mass data collection played a role in, at most, 1.8 per cent of terrorism cases examined. By contrast, traditional investigative methods initiated 60 per cent of investigations. Suddenly mass surveillance doesn’t seem so vital.

This is because the technology is far from perfect. As computer scientist Ray Corrigan has written, “Even if your magic terrorist-catching machine has a false positive rate of 1 in 1,000—and no security technology comes anywhere near this—every time you asked it for suspects in the UK it would flag 60,000 innocent people.”

Perversely, this lack of precision means mass surveillance can actually frustrate counter-terrorism efforts. Michael Adebolajo, who brutally murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013, was so well known to the security services prior to the attack they had even tried to recruit him as an informant. Yet insufficient monitoring later on let him slip through the net. The same thing happened with the Hebdo killers. Mass surveillance means intelligence analysts are forced to spend their time fruitlessly sifting through endless reams of data rather than carrying out the targeted monitoring and detection that’s really needed.

Counter-radicalisation experts have meanwhile argued that mass surveillance may alienate Muslim communities, making them distrustful of the police and possibly even contributing to radicalisation. In 2014, Jonathan Russell from the counter-extremism group Quilliam wrote that the “introduction of a sweeping [mass surveillance] law…will be exploited by extremists to show that the government wants to spy on its own citizens [and] that all Muslims are suspected of being terrorists.” This will set alarm bells ringing for those who know the fight against terrorism will ultimately be won only by preventing radicalisation in the first place.

And therein lies the real problem with this Bill. It’s tactics, not strategy. If we stop for a second and think about what the problem is – namely that thousands of young Britons are at risk of radicalisation – we’d never prescribe mass surveillance as the answer. It would be nonsensical to propose something that risks making alienation worse.

The trouble is we don’t have a convincing answer to the actual problem. The government’s counter-radicalisation strategy is mired in controversy. So instead a different question is being posed. Not how do we stop people from signing up to join Islamic State, but how do we gather as much communications data as possible? GCHQ have an answer for that. It’s a classic case of confusing a tactic – and a highly unreliable one at that – with a strategy actually designed to tackle the root of the problem.

Never mind our privacy for a moment. For the sake of our security, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of something better.

 

Andrew Noakes is Senior Advocacy Officer at the Remote Control Project. He writes about covert and unconventional methods of warfare, counter-terrorism, and human rights.