The Conservatives and the surveillance state

Thomas Ash
18 September 2009

Interesting noises from the Conservatives on privacy and the database state. As you may have heard, Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice secretary, recently gave a major speech launching a policy document entitled 'Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State'. The following remarks from early in the speech give a good flavour of its tone:

No-one is suggesting we should not harness IT or surveillance technology to strengthen public protection. I am not amongst those who nostalgically yearn for some luddite return to a pre-technological age. But, the Government's approach to databases and surveillance powers is the worst of all worlds. Intrusive. Ineffective. And enormously expensive.

With its emphasis on the ineffectiveness and high price-tag of the government's measures, this is not the language of a party committed on principle to limiting state encroachment into individuals' private lives - or at least, not that of one convinced that this is as safe a face to present as is one concerned with cost and competence.  But the proposals contained in the policy document are surprisingly strong: they include scrapping the National Identity Register, the ContactPoint database and the storage of innocent people's DNA; institutionalising a concern for privacy through a strengthened Information Commissioner and clauses in a British Bill of Rights; and a host of other measures limiting the gathering and sharing of personal information. This is sensible, practical, meaty stuff.

The Conservatives' decision to put their foot out on this issue may have something to do with a sense that in the present setting doing so is not such bad politics after all. A recent PoliticsHome poll run after Ed Balls announced plans to vet all adults in regular contact with children had a fifteen point majority opposed, and 79% of respondents saying that in general the state had "too much of a say in what people can and cannot do". The Conservatives may benefit from a narrative which has Labour as overly intrusive statists - a description which could encompass not only breaches of civil liberties and privacy but also big-spending nanny statism and the profusion of initiatives and targets. This is a particularly powerful narrative to use against a party that has been in power for twelve years. To fuel it, the Tories need only make a few of the right noises - something that should be of concern to anyone worried about their commitment to the line Grieve has taken, especially given the more authoritarian reputation of others in the shadow cabinet such as Chris Grayling.

Update: Henry Porter strikes a similar note of caution at the Guardian's Liberty Central: "...there is a long way to go before Conservatives as a whole prove themselves to be as friendly to liberty and privacy as Dominic Grieve and Eleanor Laing seem to be. It is essential that Grieve's paper does not act as a fig leaf, disguising the true nature of a party that secretly plans the continuation of Labour's intrusive and controlling measures after the next election. It may seem churlish to say so, but we cannot allow spin to persuade the electorate that is all is well with Conservative policy when it isn't." Part of the cause for Henry's concern is what is missing from Grieves' proposals: any reference to the eBorders scheme, the logging of car journeys, or repealing the Identity Card Act itself.

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