State Creep, Surveillance and Snowden: reframing the debate

Two things happened this week: it is a safe bet that Sir David Omand will be elevated to the House of Lords within the next year, and his intervention in the Snowden row reveals just how concerned the powers-that-be are that support for Snowden could prove corrosive.

After some superb, robust performances over the past fortnight by Sir David Omand, the avenging angel of UK’s securocrats, and Glen Greenwald, champion of Save our Snowdens International, now is the time for the voice of the squeezed middle to be heard.

I am not unsympathetic to the claim by human rights campaigner Anthony Barnett, to whom The Open University rightly awarded a honorary doctorate, that there are deeper issues at stake than the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, implied by his statement that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear (1).

The choice is not between security and privacy. Today’s YouGov opinion poll highlights that the British public is split on the powers available to State. The public is more supportive of the status quo, but not overwhelmingly so, and some would welcome improved Parliamentary oversight (2). David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary, is in pole position to lead renewed Parliamentary scrutiny if fellow MPs were to grip this opportunity and show leadership.

If I were Sir David Omand, Baroness Pauline-Jones, or a member of the wider securocrat community, I would feel encouraged by this latest poll. But strategically, this is not a good place for the State or its institutions to be, because The Guardian and others for whom the leaks by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden are of totemic significance will be given fresh impetus to challenge what they see as “State creep” into citizens’ lives.

Up to a point, it is healthy that there is a growing debate between group A, those who broadly accept that the security services have a necessary role in intercepting wider communications to counter terrorism and other crime, even at the expense sometimes of lines being crossed, and group B, those who express more forcibly fears the Snowden revelations mark a watershed in the perceived balance between the State and the individual.

In my view, only up to a point: because there is a group C, to which I belong, who believe that it is in the interest of liberal democracy that we achieve collaborative resolution of this “wicked” problem. It is “wicked” in the sense that many of society’s problems do not lend themselves easily to right or wrong answers, and the security/liberty conundrum is one of them.

The debate so far is being confined to groups A and B. I saw the same polarisation in 2002 before I and other Whitehall colleagues devised a framework for policy resolution, including a government-funded public debate, conducted at arm’s length, to go beyond the narrow choice that Government had to be either for the commercialisation of GM crops or against. At the end, following the publication of two reports, one on the health risk, the other on the cost/benefit analysis of GM, and a public debate independently chaired by Professor Malcolm Grant, the public were more discerning about the options – but only as a result of being more informed and involved in the shaping of public policy. The then Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett, decided in favour of commercialising one crop, GM maize, but not the others. It was to then Prime Minister’s credit this innovative way of securing public support happened. The Prime Minister was Tony Blair.

There is more heat than light in the current debate sparked by Snowden’s leaks. Who is going to bring some light to it?

It would be an indictment of both US and UK governments, and their Faustian pact with the media, if there were a denouement of the Snowden saga, whereby Snowden is returned to the US and locked away for life, forever on the run, or just eliminated.

Something bigger is at play here, and the public knows it. The public does not want to make it easier for the terrorists or organised crime (and they are the real enemy, not the State), but nor does it want an unwarranted intrusion into its privacy, especially when the government and business appear to be acting in their own interests, rather than in the interests of the citizen or consumer. After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, we just do not trust capitalism or its institutions, but this does not mean we do not try to work with these institutions and reform them. We cannot afford to have trust in the security apparatus of the State eroded. We can live with politicians, estate agents and journalists at the bottom of the public’s trust league. Judges, police, armed forces and security services need to command higher levels of public trust and confidence.

If society is truly to embrace the reality of modern terrorism and serious crime while remaining true to liberal, progressive values, which I believe go to the heart of what the UK is about as a sophisticated parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy, then government, business, civil society and individual citizens need to find much more common ground.

The way that we find common ground is listening to the concerns of the other, and work through the differences – some differences have to be accepted, others can be resolved.

Sir David Ormand is one of our most distinguished former top civil servants. I learnt volumes working with him, first when he carried out a capability review of the newly created Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, then when I supported him in his role of Chairman of the Permanent Secretaries’ Risk Group. He also contributed to my international report on cross-sector collaboration for the FCO. So I know first-hand that Sir David Omand understands the difference between alerting the public and alarming it.

Considered and judicious, Sir David raised the stakes this week in his assessment that Snowden’s leaks are worse than those than those of the Cambridge spies. I find this hard to believe, but if Sir David Omand is saying this, I and others will sit up and listen. But I shall also want to explore ways that this country finds a new consensus on security and liberty, because one cannot sustainably have one at the expense of the other.

(1) Newsnight interview, Thursday 3rd October, 2013

(2) YouGov opinion poll, Sunday 13th October, 2013

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3 Responses to State Creep, Surveillance and Snowden: reframing the debate

  1. Brent Longborough says:

    Surely the real problem is a lack of tension between the Security Services, who are doing everything (perhaps in excess) to fulfil their mission (with technical, if not juridical excellence), and “The Representatives of the Governed” whose mission is to constrain them within the Rule of Law.

    I suspect that many of us recognise the need for properly-supervised surveillance of specific individuals based on reasonable (and secret, even) cause, but we are unhappy (to put it mildly) at the apparent, ongoing failure of public accountability (however it may have arisen), and the lack of an effective adversarial process.

  2. Pingback: Edward Snowden | Pearltrees

  3. Commendable even-handedness but based on incomplete premises. Why base the discussion on the pretence that power is evenly shared between State and citizens. The real question is whom is the State representing? Difficult to discern what stake the state now has in a democratic process when its technological advantage perhaps obviates the need for participating in it. Control trumps democratic representation in such a situation.

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