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?

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia