Spiegel Online has an interesting article today in English entitled “Britain’s Blind Faith in Intelligence Agencies“. I agree with the title, and conclusion of the piece, but it poses one major question for me: why do the British have this blind faith? This issue has been on my mind a lot this week, and I spent hours discussing it in Berlin yesterday, but without any conclusive answers. So here are some possible reasons. I am not entirely convinced by any of them, and the list is by no means complete, but this issue needs to be discussed. So here’s a start.
1) Britain never had a dictatorship
Other countries have been ruled by dictatorships of one sort or another, and Germany suffered twice within a century, and one of those times was within living memory for most people. This means the British population is less sensitive to abuse of state power when it comes to surveillance than others are.
2) Britain’s constitutional traditions
The UK has no written Constitution, and while it is a signatory of the ECHR, the population has no deep knowledge of what is and is not acceptable from the state as a result. This sets the UK in contrast to France and Germany, and even the USA (with its Bill of Rights). A related point is Britain’s common law tradition, and its emphasis on presumption of innocence and the need for proof of guilt – meaning surveillance can possibly provide the evidence necessary.
3) Britain won World War II
This relates to point 1) above, and the argument runs that Alan Turing and his counterparts helped the UK win the war thanks to interception of communications, and breaking the Germans’ codes. GCHQ, formed in 1946 in its current guise, built upon this success, and hence surveillance is good.
4) Spies are heroes
What better known British film character is there than James Bond? A good spy. This runs deep in the national psyche.
5) Partial and skewed journalism
Britain’s major newspapers are heavily partial, and seldom shy away from campaigning for causes. In addition the newspaper industry is in financial dire straits, meaning the role of powerful owners is more marked than ever. This means that papers on the right of British politics are seldom willing to dig into abuses of power when it comes to security issues.
6) Relationship with the United States
The relationship with the USA is seldom called into question, and is termed the ‘special relationship’ by the British political classes. Whether the USA quite sees it the same way is open to question, but the impact of the USA’s development of its surveillance apparatus (especially after 2001) has had an impact on the UK.
Defending the nation and the ‘national interest’ from perceived threat is a strong line pushed by politicians of all colours, started particularly strongly by Thatcher and continued since then. If surveillance protects the nation then it is hence justifiable.
8) Northern Ireland
The UK suffered for a long time from a terrorist threat in part of its own territory, and the main Act used to detain David Miranda dates from 2000, and was drafted to deal with Northern Irish terrorism. This makes the insurgent threat more real for the British population, also further underlined by the London bombings in 2005.
9) Party politics
Over the past couple of decades neither Labour nor the Conservatives has been particularly liberal on civil liberties issues, and the Liberal Democrats have been too weak and too small to shape this agenda, and now they are in coalition with the Tories it is close to impossible. The UK election system means there are no other voices in parliament that can challenge the prevailing consensus.
9) The state is sclerotic narrative
Economically and politically Britain suffered from upheaval in the 1970s and 1980s, from economic shocks to the miners’ strike and riots in the 1980s. The response from Thatcher (who forged a consensus that has since been seldom challenged) was that the state was sclerotic and needed to be cut back, but that order needed to be maintained through the force of law and order, leading to the boom in CCTV in the UK.
10) Trust of the police
The notion that the police are there to help, and the police are not brutal enforcers of law and order still runs deep in the national psyche, even if plenty of evidence calls this faith into question. But the UK default is that authorities are on the side of the people.
Further thoughts and comments most welcome!
[UPDATES AFTER POST ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED]
On Twitter, @guan has this thought:
While I am personally not knowledgeable about le Carré, I nevertheless would think that his writing, with its moral ambiguity, would – if anything – increase the critique of surveillance!