All-seeing: new legislation could entrench and extend the ablility of the state to monitor us. Image: Herbert Bayer/Private Collection/Christie's Images/Bridgeman Images
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The deep state: data surveillance is about power, not safety

All three of Britain’s main parties insist that data surveillance is for our protection – but this “emergency” is about power and control.

In October last year, at the start of this parliamentary session, Russell Brand guest-edited the New Statesman. In a sweeping encomium to the revolutionary spirit, he tried to “reach beneath the stagnant quotidian to the omnipresent truth within”. He confessed: “Like most people I am utterly disenchanted by politics. Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.” He described apathy as “a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people”. He conceded that it “is certainly preferable [for] those who govern”, against the only plausible alternative: rage.

Yet we are, Brand concluded, “far from apathetic, we are far from impotent. I take great courage from the groaning effort required to keep us down, the institutions that have to be fastidiously kept in place to maintain this duplicitous order.” He then neatly summarised this ruling order in four words: “Propaganda, police, media, lies.”

Today, three reactions to this wonderful Branding of Britain can be identified. The first, carried in the NS and elsewhere, was to respond not to Brand’s analysis but to his candid admission that he thinks voting makes no difference. (“Wrong!” said the left and I agree: if you know that the Tories will destroy the NHS and Labour will save it you can make your mark on election day, even if you believe Brand is right that voting is “a tacit act of compliance” with the system.)

This is what Brand told Jeremy Paxman, whose BBC Newsnight interview was the second establishment reaction, which was supposed to take the form of: “If you don’t vote, you are irrelevant and, anyway, you are irrelevant.” Instead, it was Paxman (and all that he represents) who was swept into irrelevance by Brand. “Stop voting. Stop pretending. Wake up . . . Time to be in reality now. Why vote? We know it’s not going to make any difference,” Brand said, as the hapless interrogator tried to find a flaw in his eloquent criticism of extreme disparities of wealth and the destruction of the planet.

“Let’s approach this optimistically,” he said to Paxman. “You have spent your whole career berating and haranguing politicians and then when a comedian like me . . . goes, ‘Yes, they’re all worthless’ . . . you have a go at me because I’m not poor any more.” Then he asked, “Why be complicit in this ridiculous illusion? . . . Aren’t you bored more than anyone? Talking to them year after year, listening to their lies, their nonsense. Then it’s this one gets in, then it’s that one gets in . . . Why are we going to continue to contribute to this façade? . . . Yes, I am angry, because for me it’s real . . . not just some peripheral thing . . . This is what I care about.”

Within months, Paxman was on his bike, or rather riding second saddle on Boris Johnson’s tandem, cycling into irrelevance.

And the third response – that of the politicians? To wait and then confirm everything that Brand described by using the back end of parliament’s session to pass an odious emission of propaganda and lies, permitted by the media and taking us closer to becoming a police state. Exaggerated? Let’s assess the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (Drip) Bill, taking the issues in the order of propaganda, lies, media and the police. All three main parties have agreed to the “emergency” bill. It was announced on 10 July and becomes law on 17 July.



“Propaganda” means the manipulation and shaping of what everyone accepts to be true, so that so-called public opinion favours the existing order of power and exploitation. The best propaganda is always very “big brush”, surrounding you with its falsity, suffocating your synapses with its bad faith so that you can’t find an orientation from which to see what is happening.

Drip is a perfect example of the great propaganda feat of the early 21st century: the idea that the creation of the surveillance state is about opposing terrorism and crime and that this is being done at great effort for our sake by selfless spies and administrators, concerned only with protecting us regular folk from the evil that would be done to us.

Au contraire: Drip is not about what David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, say it’s about. It has nothing to do with fighting terrorism and crime, which everyone supports and all agree is a thankless task. It has everything to do with establishing and reinforcing social control – control, not protection, of us, the people, by the existing regime of state power and corporate wealth. The mass surveillance of everyone without prior suspicion, which the bill helps reinforce, makes us all potential suspects. Knowing this, we self-censor; knowing we are being watched, we obey, the condition of slavery.

They say, “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.” That is propaganda. The reality is that if you want to do something right, you have everything to fear. If you want to blow the whistle on a big company, call a broadcaster about an abuse of power, complain about the police or organise a peaceful demonstration, be afraid. They can track you down. All of what the bill calls your “communications data”, better known as metadata (see the box on page 39), can be stored. Drip’s Explanatory Notes describe it as covering “when; from where; and with whom. It can include the time and duration of a communication, the number or email address of the originator and recipient, and sometimes the location of the device from which the communication was made.” Once retained, it can be accessed legally by the authorities “in the interests of public safety”.

In April, the European Court of Justice ruled that this bulk holding of data was an invasion of privacy and a breach of fundamental human rights. Data should be retained only when “strictly necessary”, justified in terms of public security, protected from general access and destroyed when no longer needed. (For a clear report, see the Open Rights Group’s briefing for MPs.) This judgment found against the lawfulness of the EU Data Retention Directive, under which the UK government had been gathering its data. It opened the way for existing challenges to British law – but these would take until at least the end of the year and communication providers were told that, until then, UK law would remain as it was. In short, there was no emergency. There is no emergency.

Yet ministers were dragged from their beds on 10 July for an “emergency” 8am cabinet meeting so that they could approve, with all their bleary-eyed, unshaven collective authority, a legislative scam. After the London terrorist bombings of 7 July 2005, a Downing Street official said, “We’re not rushing anything. We all remember the Dangerous Dogs Act.” In 1991, there were some dangerous dogs. In Britain today, there is only the grinding of the deep state.

At the joint “emergency” press conference of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, David Cameron told the assembled media of “two developments that require urgent action”, both of which had taken place “in recent weeks”. First, the European Court of Justice judgment – but this was three months earlier. Second, that “some companies are questioning” whether there is a legal basis to share their content, as they are not based in the UK.

Panic stations! Let’s big up “organised crime”, stir in the “activity of paedophiles”, look concerned about “the growth of Isis in Iraq”, remember the imminent risk posed by the rise of “al-Shabab in East Africa” and chuck in the “collapse of Syria”, even if it has been going on for several years.

Propaganda is not about lying. It is about shaping false perceptions. The main thrust of the propaganda of today’s regime is to make the public think that the purpose of surveillance is to protect it from threats, rather than to intimidate it into accepting the status quo. To achieve this in the absence of an actual attack, let’s declare an emergency anyway. There is no time to waste; al-Shabab is knocking on the door!

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia who is now resident in London, noted: “There is no reason to rush through legislation without appropriate public and parliamentary scrutiny.” Indeed, but the purpose of the rush is to pre-empt reason. Urgency is the drum roll of propaganda.



It takes only one lie to show that an untruth is at large. Lies are different from propaganda: they are technical and demonstrable. Laying Drip before parliament on 10 July, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, told the Commons that the security and intelligence agencies are “clear that we need to act immediately. If we do not, criminals and terrorists will go about their work unimpeded and innocent lives will be lost.” This is propaganda, a gross exaggeration that is impossible to disprove. In addition, she stated, “This legislation will merely maintain the status quo.” That is a lie. As Human Rights Watch’s summary describes Drip, it “extends the scope of who may be subject to interception warrants extraterritorially to companies outside the UK that offer communications services to UK customers”.

According to the government’s Explanatory Notes, “the bill also extends the definition of ‘telecommunications service’ in the law to include ‘companies who provide internet-based services, such as webmail’ . . .This change would subject a much broader range of internet companies in the UK and abroad to surveillance warrants from the UK,” Human Rights Watch argues.

To put it another way, Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks based outside the UK could now be subject legally to British surveillance and data retention.



Since the Edward Snowden revelations, the government and the security services have briefed the press and broadcasters that there isn’t a problem, that we must not upset our US allies and that Jo and Joe Public are not interested. Yet the most important contribution to the media’s puerile coverage rests on the lack of official opposition to Drip. Cross-party collaboration deprives them of the opportunity to report an argument.

The press may start to feel uneasy. On 10 July, the government announced emergency legislation to protect us from terrorists, paedophiles, criminal gangs and the collapse of Syria, with every item designed to alarm. On 13 July, neither the Sunday Telegraph nor the Sunday Times regarded it as a story. It was as if the “emergency” was so contrived that even those who live by alarmism were embarrassed for their credibility. Only the Mail on Sunday of the upper-right-wing market ran a major piece, a welcome denunciation of the whole farrago by David Davis MP as “an insult to the supremacy of parliament, to democracy and to the trust of the public”. He made the interesting point that: “The 2013 report of the interception of communications commissioner revealed that 514,608 requests had been made for data. By comparison, the most requests issued by the FBI in a year is 56,507. How can it be [that] our intelligence agencies made nine times the number of requests for communications data . . . their US counterparts did?”

Then there is the BBC. The influence of its collaboration is impossible to measure. However, if its duty is to inform, educate and entertain, it has fallen down on all three counts with respect to surveillance. There is a gruesome public interest in how much of our lives is known and recorded which certainly can be said to occupy the edges of entertainment. There is a great deal of interest in how surveillance works. Take metadata, for instance, which is increasingly a fundamental aspect of our modern existence, as it records the shape of our lives and then reshapes life accordingly. While Gordon Corera made a serious film on metadata for Newsnight, John Humphrys of the Today programme sneers at the term as if it changes nothing. The simple duty to educate and inform, if carried out, would have no end of an effect on public opinion. This is another reason why the legislation is being rushed.



Who will now be empowered to demand access to the material covered by Drip? Plod, Plod and Plod. The inner sanctum of GCHQ may be able to call up the history of your web searches anyway. Soon, in the service of public order, the Met will be able to demand social media metadata, as well as telephonic information. Does this make you feel safer?

Reporting in the Independent in January, Tom Harper looked back at years of police cover-ups and collusion in crime, including cases that involved the handing over of information from databases, and quoted a recently retired senior officer from Scotland Yard: “Nothing has changed. The Met is still every bit as corrupt as it was back then.” As privatisation and cost-cutting accompany the staggering increase in police intrusion, no database is safe in their hands.

Earlier this year, I interviewed General Michael Hayden, who headed the NSA in the Bush era, when the bulk collection of US domestic data began in earnest after 9/11. His argument was that while the material may be collected, it is not being read, except under circumstances permitted by strictly controlled rules. In Britain, David Omand, a former director of GCHQ, claims the same thing. “We know,” the security forces are telling us, “but we don’t look” – except when it concerns public order, as the law entitles us. Really? It’s simple: surveillance is about policing, not terrorism.


The opposition

In March, in a set-piece speech delivered at Demos on “the challenges of a digital world to our security and liberty”, Yvette Cooper called for a “vigorous debate”. Here was her chance. Instead, defending her support for Drip on Sky News, Cooper said it was temporary legislation that would aid investigations into “horrible images of children” and terrorists from Syria. To quote her from the programme’s official transcript:

“That’s why we said temporary legislation is needed. However, there is a much bigger issue about whether the legal framework is now out of date, whether stronger oversight is needed, as I have [inaudible] and that’s why we have called for this big review of the whole legal framework. I think it’s unfortunate that the government didn’t start that earlier and I hope they will do so now.”

As Tony Hancock said about Magna Carta, does no one remember the opposition? Did she die in vain? 

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.


Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.


Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?


Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.


As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era