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A brief explanation of why Britain’s government is poisonous to privacy

uk_election_update_tory_lib_dem_coalition_back_on_track-1280x960By Simon Davies

Some people might reluctantly forgive the British Tory party over its recent history of intolerance, political self-interest and electoral deceit – in the same way that they might forgive a snake for acting like a snake. It’s in the blood.

But even by Tory standards, this current conservative government has embarked on a breathtaking programme of legislative regression, imposing freedom-wrecking measures to such an extent that even opponents of the previous repressive Labour government are inclined to yearn for the good old days before the Tories came to power.

Happier days: the one moment when Cameron and Clegg could engage in mutual fantasy about a fairer Britain

Happier days: the one moment when Cameron and Clegg could engage in mutual fantasy about a fairer Britain

In the eyes of many, however, there can be no redemption for the Liberal Democrat party that in 2010 ratted on most of its principles by forming an ill-fated coalition alliance with their ancient enemy in order to form a mongrel government. That party has become what, in diplomatic circles, is politely described as “a disappointment”.

To be fair, the Tories used to occasionally reflect a fine history of upholding a variety of social values, often enforced by their Libertarian wing. Under the current regime, however, once the libertarians had served their electoral purpose they were given a hundred days grace before being trampled by the stronger authoritarian wing of the party (which, is should be noted, is the controlling influence in the current UK government).

It turns out the same fate was served out to the Lib Dems immediately after the coalition was formed – not that you’d have guessed that situation from the blatant complicity of the liberals. Sadly, pragmatism has too often triumphed over principle, as witnessed by the junior party’s cave-in on tuition fees, Europe and many other issues.

The tipping point for many people right now is the imminent ‘Transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill’ – aka the gagging bill – which intends to undermine trades unions. limit free speech and impede citizen rights.

The tipping point for many people right now is the imminent ‘Transparency of lobbying, non-party campaigning and trade union administration bill’ – aka the gagging bill – which intends to undermine trades unions. limit free speech and impede citizen rights.

The bill will give the government access to trades union membership records, present huge obstacles to democratic participation by charities and NGO’s and will protect powerful corporate lobbyists.

Overseas readers should see this most recent act of democratic vandalism in the context of a seminal coalition agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems, which committed to not only preserving rights, but also limiting imposition and intrusion by the state. And while it’s true that some of those commitments were at least minimally fulfilled, the big picture was left unpainted. The UK government has shown its true colours through institutional hostility to Europe, human rights, law reform and to privacy.

Of the eighteen coalition commitments to civil liberties, privacy and transparency, barely half have seen the light of day in any meaningful way. Or, if they have seen the light of day, the effort has been pyrrhic at best, undermined by subsequent prescriptive law.

At the head of that list – as a manifesto banner – is:

“We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion.”

One might ask how the re-introduction of mass data sharing, the national roll-out of default Internet filtering, undermining EU data protection reforms and the introduction of limitless new prohibitions and quasi-judicial restraints square with this commitment.

Some say it’s easier to support rights and freedoms when you’re in opposition. No it isn’t. The parliamentary Opposition, the Labour party, proves that it’s just as easy to engage a race to the bottom on rights. The Tories, naturally, are happy to run that race.

The UK government has shown its true colours through institutional hostility to Europe, human rights, law reform and to privacy.

I recall my lengthy reformist conversations with now Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg in the years before that Coalition victory. I also recall my excited and regular dialogue with the current Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, plotting the protection of rights against a repressive Labour regime. Should a special ring of hell now be devoted to Grieve and Clegg over their hypocrisy and their complicity with PM David Cameron and the authoritarians?

Fortunately, the same cannot so easily be said of a few Tory martyrs such as Edward Garnier and former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis.

Garnier, the now ousted Solicitor General, enthusiastically chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Privacy that I set up before the 2010 election. More than the others, he stuck by at least some of his principles and (in part) as a result was crudely displaced in the 2012 cabinet reshuffle. Davis went to the wall fighting for liberties against the Tory right. There is no room in Cabinet for troublemakers and reformers, that much is clear.

As for the other personalities in this horrible tale, it’s a sad picture of neglect and self-interest. Little wonder that the current controversy over global surveillance has met with zero advocacy from the government. Even the Lib Dems do not want to betray the trans-Atlantic Tory consciousness any more than they want to remember that they once believed in privacy and rights.