Western governments and business be warned: security/liberty – the debate that won’t go away

There was never an end of ideology, even with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is always ideology: it is just that some ideologies are worth preserving because they do the least harm, and even some good, in the right measure.

Western liberal democracy has its own ideology, a combination of the exercise of legitimate power, pursuit of national interests, and a commitment to universal values, including freedom and democracy. Cynics and opponents will see this mix as inherently contradictory, but it is the secret to lasting stability. Democracy’s dynamic quality is its biggest source of strength, even though it does not aways feel that way. Terrorists, organised crime and opponents of democracy all seek a false order where difference is stifled and life is devalued.

No system can improve on the combination offered by a properly functioning liberal democracy, especially when leaders lead on the basis of public trust and confidence.

Not surprisingly, the diplomatic services of Western powers pick and mix between political and economic realism and high-minded values. This is as much an art as a science. The late Robin Cook’s mistake in articulating “ethical foreign policy” was to put all expectations in one basket: idealism is easily undermined by hard cases. But an ethical core to foreign policy is a prerequisite for differentiating liberal democracy from other systems.

One cornerstone of liberal democracy is public trust in states and corporates, and their leaders’s skill in managing boundaries and avoiding excessive power and influence. Power is earned. Leaders in a liberal democracy are custodians. The citizen fights back against all forms of tyranny, external and internal. Humanity always ultimately wins against abusers and misusers of power.

Trust is not a fluffy concept but real and exacting. Government and corporate communications are easily undermined if trust is not maintained at three levels:

– Trust in the accuracy of what is said
– Trust in the ability to get done what is promised
– Trust in leaders being on the same wavelength as those they ostensibly serve

These are as much the working tools of a civilised society as actual institutions and their levers of power.

The last level of trust is frequently forgotten by the functionaries in government departments and large companies because they do not see beyond their immediate task, and reduce the rest of the world to one homogeneous mass to be ignored or manipulated. If leaders are to keep public confidence, they need to respond not just to the needs of their organisations but to the needs of those they serve.

British and US governments are losing the PR battle because they are not addressing what matters to most people in the post-Snowden security/liberty debate. They rightly address the threat of terrorism and organised crime, but it is not a choice between security and liberty, but a combination of the two that will defeat democracy’s enemies.

PR battles do not matter in their own right. They matter because they are often symptomatic of a wider malaise. If British and US governments are to be strategic, rather than just tactical – and this includes the security chiefs who went before the UK Parliament’s intelligence committee- they must realise that they need to act on revitalising and reframing the public debate.

The security/liberty debate will not go away in 2014, much as some in governments and their state machines wish it would. Looking back on my earlier journalistic and government career, I remember sceptics and critics of the environment movement saying that the environment agenda would run its course. It did not, and evolved into something even stronger, sustaintainable development, which in turn evolved into something stronger still, the battle against climate change. Our world will implode if we do not deal with the two cancers: global warming and an untamed surveillance society that erodes all bonds of trust.

Governments and large companies should confront the deeper issues, not the media. They cannot spin their way out of growing suspicion and disillusion by a growing section of the public. They should take heed of the latest campaign for digital rights (see link below).

We need a more informed and intelligent debate that governments and corporates themselves are keen to conduct, or to have conducted by an independent commission and public consultation, based on a real and shared understanding and appreciation of the risks and opportunities. The authorities can only emerge more effective and secure in their public support as a result.

Apart from anything else that might come from it, this proactive approach to embracing a more open debate would show that our leaders care enough about what makes liberal democracy different, and want to stop the steady erosion of trust between those who govern and those who are governed. I wonder whether or where this appears on any government or security services risk register. But for the good of our society, this risk should be better managed.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *