thenextwave

Explaining England’s surveillance obsession

Posted in civil liberties, politics, reports, security, trends by thenextwavefutures on 7 February, 2008

The current scandals around surveillance in the UK reminds me that I meant to post about Privacy International’s most recent international league table. (Thanks to Our Kingdom for the prompt). England and Wales are in the bottom category – “endemic surveillance societies” – while Scotland, split out for the first time, is a little higher, in category 5 (‘systemic failure to uphold safeguards’) of the 7. England is the only EU country to make the bottom grade; the US is also down there. A note of caution; very few states make the top three categories.

The Privacy International process scores countries against a whole range of criteria, 14 in all, and the scores are published. Its assessment of the UK includes “world leading surveillance schemes” and “lack of accountability and data breach disclosure law”, among a host of other comments. In England and Wales, councils continue to spread surveillance policies. Scotland fares better because there is stronger constitutional protection, the DNA database is less open to abuse, and the government is more open to debate on privacy policies.

If Privacy International’s judgement seems stern, it’s in line with the data used by Liberty in its campaign against government plans for the extension of pre-change detention. Although there are some problems with comparisons between jurisdictions, in contrast to the UK’s current 28 days, the second highest figure in the EU is Ireland’s seven days, while Turkey is seven and a half days. (The US is one day, which brings its own problems, as I’ll suggest below).

There’s quite a big question as to how Britain managed to move from being a country where civil liberties and individual rights were strongly upheld and advocated to its present state. Some might point to the war in the North of Ireland, as strengthening the hand of the security services, but Spain has had as long a bloody guerilla war with Basque separatists, but gets by with five days pre-charge without trial, red -5/7 – on the Privacy International map.

A stronger candidate is the way in which the British government is over-centralised, and in terms of the Privacy International map, there seems to be some correlation. (And it’s also the case that it has become more over-centralised over the last thirty years – since Thatcher started the process of dismantling independent or even partially independent sources of power in UK society, a process which Blair and Brown have enthusiastically continued).

There are also some interesting related questions about how in both the main parties the voices of those who spoke out for liberties – often for different reasons – have become completely eclipsed. The legacy of Aneurin Bevan has been drowned out, in Labour terms, by that of Ernest Bevin.

But the best explanation seems to be a structural one: what is it about the British state which leads its politicians to accept the word of the security services at face value, and promote their interests above those of other competing interests in a way which doesn’t happen in other states? This leads me to think about the way our defence interests are locked into the world of nuclear secrecy, and on top of that locked into a dependence on American intelligence, which creates a set of filters through which our politicians are briefed and advised, whereby the rest of us all become versions of the Enemy Within. (And memory works in strange ways: as I typed that last line, an image of the final scenes of Alan Plater’s adaptation of A Very British Coup came to mind.)

As for the US and its one day of pre-charge detention; at that extreme lies the shadowy world of disappeared people and extreme rendition.

There’s a PDF of the Privacy International map below.

Privacy International PDF

Related posts: Surveillance scepticism and the world of “pre-crime”; ‘Liberties’ issues seem to be gaining momentum; and Ted Heath’s prescient comment on liberties

2 Responses

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  1. […] erosion of liberties I’ve written here from time to time on the evolution of Britain as a surveillance society, and the trends embedded in it. Now the […]

  2. […] or future British governments bring UK law on the time permitted to interrogate without charging into line with other democracies (about seven days). The CCTV cameras and the DNA database seem unlikely to […]


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