Cowardice meets arrogance in UK surveillance stitch up

The leadership of the major UK political parties are set to ram through a sweeping surveillance bill without debate or study. It's a perfect storm of cowardice and arrogance, and it comes at a price. Cory Doctorow wants you to do something about it.

The issue has come up in such a whirlwind that you could be forgiven for missing it. On Wednesday, we learned that the leaders of all three major British political parties expected their members of parliament to vote in favour of a bill they'd be introducing the next day, without saying what, exactly, that bill would concern. On Thursday, we learned the details: the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, AKA "DRIP" would create nearly unlimited spying powers for this government and all the ones that followed it. With all the party leaders having agreed that it would pass, no matter what—even the Liberal Democrat leadership, who had historically split from their Tory partners on matters of mass surveillance—it threatens to become law without effective debate or discussion.

The principled veteran Labour MP Tom Watson took to the Guardian to explain that the party leadership are all cozy enough with each other to get together and agree that unpopular, unneeded, and dangerous legislation gets through without any debate, by whipping their MPs to vote, virtually sight unseen.

Watson's seen this before: it was how the brutal Digital Economy Act was passed in the very last hours of the last Labour parliament, on a "three-line whip" that threatened MPs' party membership if they didn't vote for the highly technical, never-debated copyright law, literally on the day that their re-election campaigns began.

And he's seen what becomes of this kind of high-handed politicking. Secret deals like this, made between party elites without any public discussion—let alone parliamentary debate—results in an "erosion of the authority of our political institutions," at a time when Britons' trust in their political institutions is at an all-time low.

But why are the party leaders so anxious to pass a surveillance bill? Some would point to all the ministers who get to staff up their own empires with spooks and materiel to accomplish the mass, warrantless spying. Others would point to the private industry who will get to bill the government for equipment and services related to mass spying—including the telcoms companies, whose profitability since 9/11 has turned on their ability to send bills to the government for participation in secret, illegal spying campaigns.

But Ray Corrigan has another explanation: cowardice.

When David Cameron went on Radio 4 to explain his reasoning for surveillance, he tipped his hand:

"I am simply not prepared to be a prime minister who has to address the people after a terrorist incident and explain that I could have done more to prevent it."

As Ray writes, "There you have the whole story of the political interest in the construction of our mass surveillance infrastructure in a single sentence. Our political leaders are scared. They are not scared of the terrorists. No. They are scared that the next time there is a terrorist attack they will be accused of having not done enough to prevent it."

It's easy to be cynical about politics and to feel like nothing could make a difference. When the political leadership and the party grandees act in the spirit of cowardice, arrogance, and expedience at the expense of true leadership, they surrender all legitimacy, and not just for them, but for the political system altogether.

It's why voter turnout is decline with no bottom in sight. It's why voters are willing to cast their ballots for know-nothing, racist thugs like the UK Independence Party.

It's a genuine crisis in democracy, and it scares me.

There's a chance to salvage this. Maybe. Civil society groups across the UK have sprung into action on this issue, putting up action centres in record time through which you can contact your MP. With a national election on the horizon, the UK political class is more engaged with voters than at any other time in the political cycle. The "protest votes" for UKIP have them running scared -- scared that enough of their core won't manage to hold their nose and vote for them, scared that too many of their base will defect to a minority party (I've joined the Hackney Greens and voted Green in the last EU election, and will vote Green in the coming national election) that they will lose, and lose big. The lesson of the 2010 upset, which created the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, is that politics are less stable than they've been in a generation.

We can make a difference.

The Open Rights Group's Action Centre on DRIP is waiting for you. Write to your MP. Attend her surgery. Call her office. Let her know that this is a deal-breaker for you. Send a message to MPs whose jobs next year depend on your vote that siding with the elites in their cowardice and arrogance is a career-ending move.

It's our only hope, and if we can beat back the arrogance and cowardice now, we can pave the way for a better future for all of us.

-Cory Doctorow

(Image: Punch/Irish Political Cartoon Gallery, British Prime Minister David Cameron meeting with Indonesian President Yudhoyono, DFID, CC-BY))

Published 9:22 am Fri, Jul 11, 2014

About the Author

I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

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