The crime that brought down Nixon has been ruled legal in the UK

The ruling that it's legal for the UK government to spy on MPs tells a deeply worrying story about British democracy.

Maggie Chapman
20 October 2015

GCHQ: Open Government Licence v1.0

There was once a scandal so big that every abuse of political power since has been named after it. It led to the indictments of 69 people and the only ever resignation of an American president. At the heart of it was a simple criminal act: a political leader using the power of the state to spy on their opponents. It was, in other words, all about surveillance.

What's interesting about Watergate is how attitudes to it have changed. As recently as the early Seventies, the idea that the government would listen-in on the conversations of its political opponents was seen as fundamentally undermining democracy; to such an extent that the most powerful man in the world was forced out of office when it transpired he'd been involved in it. Polls show that most younger Americans today, who weren't around at the time, can't understand what all of the fuss was about.

It's worth remembering that when you read the ruling that came from the investigatory powers tribunal last week in response to a case lodged by my Green Party colleagues Caroline Lucas and Jenny Jones. It is now, apparently, legal for GCHQ to spy on MPs' and MSPs' emails.

Caroline and Jenny brought the case in the face of revelations from US whistleblower Edward Snowden, which made clear that secret police (let's not beat about the bush) were capturing their communications. This was, they pointed out, a direct breach of “The Wilson Doctrine” - an assurance dating back to the Sixties from the then Prime Minister that MPs would not be spied on. The fact that this promise was broken is worrying. The fact that the courts have now ruled that this breach is perfectly legal is more concerning still.

Part of the problem with this is a simple question of constituents' privacy. As Caroline said last week:

“My constituents have a right to know that their communications with me aren’t subject to blanket surveillance – yet this ruling suggests that they have no such protection.

“Parliamentarians must be a trusted source for whistleblowers and those wishing to challenge the actions of the government.”

This is, of course, absolutely right. But what the case gets to the heart of is something deeper, more insidious. And in order to explore why, we need to get our heads round a rather complex idea: freedom.

Quentin Skinner is one of the leading living theorists of freedom. And as he puts it: “freedom... consists not in being free from coercion in respect of some action, but rather in being free from the possibility of coercion.” He goes on to say:

“To be free, we not only need to have no fear of interference, but no fear that there could be interference, but that latter assurance is precisely what cannot be given if we are under surveillance. So long as surveillance is going on, we always could have our freedom of action limited if someone chose to limit it. The fact that they may not make that choice does not make us any less free, because we are not free from surveillance and the possible uses that can be made of it. Only when we are free from such possible invasions of our rights are we free; and this freedom can be guaranteed only when there is no surveillance.”

To put it another way, a toddler in a playpen may be perfectly happy. But if they cannot escape its walls, they are not free. If we cannot hide from the endless gaze of the state – and, what Edward Snowden revealed is that we pretty much can't – then neither are we.

Of course, Skinner's chilling point applies to us all. What Snowden revealed is that we are now all being spied on as closely as were the citizens of East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall; even if through a means that is technologically updated and therefore somehow feels more distant. But we knew that already.

What Caroline Lucas' case reveals is the boundary of that 'we', and who gets to decide it. Because even the most ardent advocate of surveillance has to accept that who gets to do the snooping and who is snooped on is a question of trust. And in a democracy, we have a means of establishing who we, the people, trust: elections. And so if the people who we have declared at the ballot box that we trust the most – the people we have chosen to watch the state most closely for us – are instead being watched by the state, then this tells us something important. Surveillance is not a power we use to protect ourselves from some unspoken danger. It is a tool used by a particular section of society to protect itself from those who wish to peacefully replace them. It marks the hidden boundary of freedom in the play-pen that is politics in modern Britain.

This may all sound very abstract. There are people in Scotland who depend on foodbanks; children growing up in poverty; jobs being lost and services being cut. But for me, I find it hard to separate these issues out. The question of who is allowed to spy on whom is a question of who has the power in our society. And the answer explains why we have such gross inequality, why people go hungry, why economic decisions are made for the wealthy and not for us all: power is becoming ever-more concentrated in the hands of a narrow elite.

As a child growing up in Zimbabwe during the Cold War, I was brought up to believe that the difference between the West and the USSR was that people in the West had the privacy and the freedom to organise which is necessary for true democracy to flourish. Watergate was a scandal, but the fact that it was exposed and dealt with showed there was at least some truth to that claim, that there were limits on where the state could spy. The ruling last week shows that this is no longer true.


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