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A sacred duty

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About the author

Henry Porter is a novelist, columnist for the Observer and London Editor of Vanity Fair

What follows is a speech given by Henry Porter at the Lib Dem Conference Rally in Bournemouth, 13 Sept 2008.

On my return from holiday, at the beginning of this month, I was greeted by about 70 emails sent by my researcher. They were press clippings, excerpts from government papers and links to websites, all of them about some aspect of the attack on liberty. I sat down and went through them and truly I felt I was reading the obituary for our free society.

Absorbing so much at once has a distorting effect - we are not quite there, but we have only a very little time: very little time to save ourselves from the database state. I estimate that in two or three years it will be too late.

That's why the next general election is terribly important, not just because we have the chance to send Labour into a long and deserved exile, but because we must make sure that the attack on our freedoms - especially our privacy- is placed at the heart of the election campaign.

It's vital that we question and explore not just what each party believes but that we begin to scrutinise government departments, in particular the Home Office, which has led the drive to change the relationship between state and citizen irreversibly.

It seems clear to me that there is a conscious, well-planned programme in government departments, which may persist no matter which party is elected to govern by the people. That is my fear and we must ascertain if it is true and ask what sort of control the public exercises on the dark recesses of government and whether officials work for the public interest, for the continuance of a free and open society, or against it.

We used to think of this country as having innate respect for freedom and privacy, as though it was somehow part of the British DNA, an immutable geographic feature of these islands - like the Pennine Range.

But today instead of being an example to the world we are fast becoming the test bed for a new, technologically driven authoritarian state - what one website calls the first fascist democracy.

They may be going a little far but you see the point - democracy does not presuppose liberty.

This autumn the Queen's speech will contain a measure that allows the government access to every email, phone call, text message and Internet Connection made by anyone in this country.

The effect of this law on our society's traditions of liberty and free expression is difficult to exaggerate and it is terribly important that it is resisted by all true liberals and all true democrats in all parties.

We may be appalled at this measure, but we shouldn't be surprised.

Even though we are at the beginning of this frightening new era, nearly every part of our lives, our personal data and privacy are under attack.

So where have they got to in the project to know everything about each one of us?

Every journey made by a registered vehicle on a British motorway or through a town centre is recorded by Automatic Number Recognition Cameras. This innovation wasn't debated in parliament. No one was consulted. We weren't even formally told that it was happening.

That is the way Labour governs - by statutory instrument or decree and by allowing the creep of surveillance systems.

One of the most important of the Home Office's recent announcements means that anyone travelling abroad will have to provide nineteen pieces of information to the state - including credit card numbers, cell phone numbers and your itinerary once you have left this country. If you travel to Northern Ireland, the same information will be demanded by the state. Even yachtsmen sailing to the continents or Ireland will be required by law to file information about their crew before they leave.

Anyone travelling to Britain, or passing through, whether British subjects or not, will be subject to the same data snatch.

And there is a new measure, which will surely affect some of the fun to be had at party conferences: the proposed law to take the names of everyone staying in hotels. Ask yourself why the state wants to know this.

But it doesn't stop there - the state and local authorities are beginning to watch every aspect of our lives.

CCTV cameras spread across the nation like a nervous rash.

Terror laws are now being deployed to spy on people who may be illegally fishing in Poole Harbour. They are used to watch car boot sales, to check on people's noisy children, to spy from one garden to another, to watch couples who may be spending the night together, and again in Poole to monitor a couple who applied for school outside their catchment area. Children's schoolbooks are being checked to match doodles with graffiti "calling cards". In Wales it was reported this week, eleven police officers were involved in the surveillance of a police dog handler who claimed - rightly, as it turned out - that he was suffering depression. That operation cost £100,000.

This is Britain we're talking about - the country that Voltaire called the land of liberty. There is even a Google map recording the thousands of cases where police and local government officials have been acting like the Stasi in East Germany.

And I haven't mentioned the phone tapping by local councils and some 700 agencies, or the ID card and National Identity Register, which will log every important transaction in your life and will act like a tracking device for each of us. In November, the ID card becomes compulsory for every foreigner staying in this country as a student or for marriage.

Saatchi and Saatchi have been hired to tell us how the state will help us ‘manage our identity'.

I know how to manage my identity thank you, and I don't need some teenage copywriter sitting in Berkley Square to tell me who I am, or what I stand for.

I don't need my identity defined by the state and I don't believe the spurious argument that the ID card will somehow make my life easier.

If by some appalling fluke Labour wins the next election, we will all be giving 49 pieces of information to the database, or face fines. I'm certain it will be only a matter of time before the police and what the Home Office calls "the extended police family" will be demanding ID cards on the street.

Nor have I mentioned that Britain has built the largest DNA database in the world with half a million innocent people, many of them under-age, and a shocking racial bias against Black and Asian people. Again, this just happened. The principles have never properly been debated in Parliament.

And what about the four databases that are planned to monitor every aspect of our children's lives, the worst of which is Contact Point, which will contain every child in England listing their name, address, gender, date of birth, parents, names of doctors and other carers.

Your only have to know that 330,000 people will have access to this database to know what risk it presents to children and their families. Hardly a week goes by without a disc or laptop or a memory stick containing personal details being reported missing. In the last three years the Home Office has lost 43 laptops and countless cell phones.

You may wonder what on earth the state is going to do with this vast amount of information. Well, under the Transformational Government programme it will be shared horizontally and vertically to provide a ‘joined up" picture of every individual.

And of course the information won't stay within the UK. It will be shared across national borders with foreign agencies and police forces - and any number of hackers from the republics of the former Soviet Union. If hackers can break into CERN's systems, as they did last week, or the Pentagon, the huge centralised British database with so many access points will not present much difficulty.

The one person you'd expect to have access to all of your personal data is you.

But, of course you won't be able to check your personal data or your child's.

You won't be able challenge what you suspect the database holds on you.

And you will never know who has been looking at your file, or for what purpose.

How dare they!

How dare they treat our personal data as though it was state property!

Quite apart from the freakishness and paranoia of this obsession with our personal lives, the data-grab tells you a lot about the government's new attitude to us.

In this country it used to be that government and officials saw themselves as the servants of the people. During the last decade, that has all changed. The government and higher officials have come to regard themselves as the embodiment of the state while we - the poor bloody public, have been reduced to little more than awkward units of management.

How else are we to explain the official contempt for our privacy and our freedoms and our rights?

You may ask where Parliament has been in all this. Well, nowhere is the answer despite the brave efforts of democrats in all parties. Parliament was sidelined by Blair and his party managers who did everything they could to suppress the debate on the vital issues of freedom, rights and privacy.

This is why I and many others believe that the only answer is a new privacy act, entrenched with a Bill of Rights and set beyond the grasp of Home Secretaries who do not understand this country's traditions of rights and freedoms.

Tony Blair's administration lowered the noose over our free society. Under Gordon Brown it is about to tighten.

Linked to the ID cards database, to all the records being merged in the Transformational Government programme, to the logs of your movement home and abroad, to the web of street CCTV and local government surveillance, this single measure on communications data will mark the end of our free society as we know it.

Forget privacy.

Forget free protest, free expression and free movement.

Forget any idea of a free country of free individuals.

Forget the "land of liberty"

We are about to witness the inauguration of an era of total and unwavering surveillance.

But you can hear a pin drop.

We the British have let this happen without debate, without marches, without protest, without - it seems - the slightest qualm or anxiety.

Where is the biting satire?

Where is the outrage of the intelligentsia?

Where is the media?

This lack of protest, this meekness of spirit in Britain worries and angers me in equal measure. But you know what makes me even angrier- it is the profoundly pessimistic view of this country that these laws and decrees embody. Labour's cynicism and negativity about our country is the most contemptible part of its administration, and I am afraid that we have all to some degree bought this account of ourselves - that we are not fit to run our own lives without being watched, monitored, chivvied and punished every second of the day.

But this society is still greater than anything Labour's imagination is capable of conceiving.

Now we have to fight for a new account of ourselves and to assert our freedoms; fight like the French who have come out solidly against a government decree on July 1 which announced a huge database called EDVIGE which will contain details of people "who are active in politics or labour unions, who play a significant institutional, economic, social or religious role", or who are "likely to breach public order." President Sarkozy has announced a review and already scaled back the database. The fight goes on in France.

In Voltaire's time the English had a lot to teach the French about freedom. Now it is their turn to remind us what we once stood for. If they can resist the database, so should we.

So let the struggle begin here.

That means making this issue a part of your everyday life. Talk about it with your friends. Use the media, get in touch with your MP - especially if you live in Labour and Tory constituencies and, yes, start protesting. We need to get on the streets and challenge every part of this programme to make us slaves of the database.

I thank you for asking me to speak at your rally this evening and I end with this thought.

Every generation that is born into a free society has a sacred duty. That is to pass that free society on to the next generation, perhaps enhanced but certainly in tact. Unless we take action now we will be the first generation in hundreds of years of struggle to fail in that duty.


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