Spy on the wall: a painting of GCHQ displayed in the Mount Street Gallery, London in 2011. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on terror and surveillance: Oh look! There's a new bogeyman on the scene to justify online spying

Liam Fox insists that the “public will accept” increased surveillance because of the threat of terrorism. One suspects that if we don’t accept it, we’ll be made to.

Three summers ago, I went to Brighton with a few members of UK Uncut, the fancy-dress protest group. We were there for an anti-austerity march that happened to coincide with a sunny weekend by the seaside. When the march was over, we decided, like the hardbitten domestic extremists we were, to have a paddle.

It was then that we noticed that a group of police officers who were not local were tailing us. There were more of them than there were of us and they trailed about 50 metres behind, being as surreptitious as it’s possible to be when you’re dressed in lurid, yellow high-vis jackets. The officers followed us down to the seafront, where we had an extremely suspicious little sit-down and some chips. They watched us eat, seeming a bit embarrassed and more than a bit sweaty.

Police officers watching you paddle are one thing. You can, at least, see them and when they eventually get orders to give up, you can watch them leave. The same cannot be said for the enormous data-mining programmes being wielded against British citizens on the internet.

The ongoing revelations from the Edward Snowden affair have shown that the British security services are tracking vast amounts of online activity. In June, it emerged that a legal loophole has let them monitor all of our private messages for years; they forgot to mention this, apparently, because they were very busy. If you use Google, Facebook or Twitter to communicate with your friends or colleagues – sorry, co-conspirators – those messages are routed through servers based in the US, which makes them “external” traffic for the purposes of the intelligence services. “External” traffic covers almost all emails, online searches and browser history. That allows GCHQ legally to intercept your mails, drunk texts and love letters – and, since it’s legal, it must be OK.

Liam Fox, former defence secretary, seems to believe this is a good thing and thinks voters will put up with ever-greater intrusions on their private communications because of the new threat posed by the Islamic dissident group Isis in Syria and Iraq. On 22 June, Fox told Andrew Marr that the debate about what personal information can be collected by the state “is a problem that is going to be with us for a very long time . . . You have people at the moment, in light of Snowden, saying that the state has too many powers.” He then insisted that the “public will accept” surveillance because of the threat of terrorism. One suspects that if we don’t accept it, we’ll be made to.

The security services are not requesting new powers. It’s more that there’s a new bogeyman on the scene and, oh, look! Look at this enormous surveillance network we already had in place that just got leaked! What a happy coincidence!

State surveillance is only incidentally about catching terrorists. The apprehension of shady fundamentalist miscreants is the excuse used to extend the powers of our government to monitor ordinary people, whether or not they have done or plan to do anything wrong. Such tracking is an everyday invasion of privacy that changes behaviour and intimidates minority communities. In 2009-2010, more than 100,000 stop-and-searches were made under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Not one of them led to a terrorism-related arrest.

One of the cornerstones of the coalition agreement, the compromise on whose back this right-wing government glided into Downing Street, was the promise of “a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion”, including the “right to non-violent protest”. How’s that going? In a 2009 speech at Imperial College London, now conveniently deleted from the Conservative Party’s website, David Cameron condemned Labour’s surveillance programmes and asked: “How have we got ourselves into the position where there is such a marked imbalance of power between the citizen and the state?”

In 2010, civil liberties were on the lips of young voters, many of whom turned out to support Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates promising to roll back the “surveillance state”. Young black and Asian people, in particular, had grown up under surveillance, being stopped and searched on their own streets. People with nothing to hide had everything to fear, if they happened to have the wrong skin colour.

In recent years, it has been notoriously tricky getting British voters to care about surveillance, even in the wake of the Snowden revelations about the extent of spying on us by the NSA and GCHQ. This is understandable. As a nation, there are only so many things that we can be outraged about at the same time and people who are worried about whether they can feed their children today and educate them tomorrow have rather less bandwidth to bother about their communications being intercepted.

However, austerity and surveillance are very much linked. A government impoverishing its electorate and claiming that it is for their own good can expect resistance. Resistance has duly occurred and where it has, the full power of the surveillance state and brutal protest policing has been wielded to stamp it out. Not even elected representatives are exempt. The Green peer and former councillor Jenny Jones was recently informed that she is listed on police databases as an “extremist”. So were members of UK Uncut and of the peaceful Occupy protests, who were tailed, pepper-sprayed and mass-arrested until the organisations imploded under the pressure.

What went wrong? The coalition was elected on a promise to roll back state surveillance but it is now using the same language of “terror” to justify more invasive monitoring than anything that New Labour put in place.

Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is available for now. She will also be in conversation with classicist and author Mary Beard on 30 July at Conway Hall, London. More details and tickets here.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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