The idea that a post-Britain Scotland would be less secure than one associated with British foreign policy misadventure has been derided. Douglas Stuart Wilson explores what we mean by ‘the national interest’.
Many of us must have suspected that the State was engaged in surveillance activities and spying, and some of us might have wondered whether some prurient public servant was monitoring our phone-calls and wading through our email, having availed himself of the excuse that the “national interest” required it. The question, in terms of spying, was always about the degree. That some spying was done was obvious; that everybody was being spied on, was not so.
But since the revelations by the valiant Edward Snowden, and the equally brave work of the excellent Glenn Greenwald, to whom Snowden leaked the classified NSA documents, now we know that we live in a surveillance state, and knowing something is completely different to merely suspecting it.
The difference between knowing and suspecting is the difference between giving the State the benefit of the doubt, and believing, henceforth, as most of us will, that the State will have at its disposal everything you write or say over a fibre optic cable or via the airwaves when it feels like it.
How, after the Snowden revelations, can anybody trust the State and a single word about things done in the name of “national security”? That expression must surely be the misnomer of our time: national insecurity is what has been running like wildfire throughout Western society over the last few months.
I, myself, simply don’t buy this idea expressed on various occasions in the mainstream press that the public is not really bothered about mass surveillance. On the contrary, I think many people are bothered and even angered by it, but don’t really know what to do about it. And that unease is not misplaced.
Contrary to what our government would have us believe, in the tragic, bloody and nightmarish affairs of twentieth century Europe, it was the State, and not any terrorist group, which always posed the greatest danger to democracy, to civilization, and to human dignity. Whether in the extreme form of Stalin’s murderous reign of totalitarian terror, or Hitler’s psychopathic plan to conquer Europe and exterminate the European Jews, it was the State and State officials who carried out mass atrocities against the people.
The United States of America, “the leader of the free world” has also chosen on too many occasions to completely abandon the democratic principles of its Founding Fathers; its involvement in the notorious Operation Condor saw a full-scale assault on democracy in South America launched in the 1970’s, leading, among others, to the fascist dictatorial regimes of Pinochet’s Chile and the Argentinean military junta – which would later go on to invade the Falkland Islands – and lead to the murder, torture, disappearance and rendition of thousands of innocent people. John Pilger’s The War on Democracy should leave nobody in any doubt about how little democratic scruples seem to bother some CIA operatives.
To offer reasonable safeguards against the illegal and immoral actions of the State, we need a written Constitution in an independent, democratic Scottish Republic to safeguard the rights of Scottish citizens. This need has been starkly borne out by the response to the Snowden revelations on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the United States of America, whose Declaration of Independence was the most progressive and liberal document of its day, and a third of whose signatories were either Scottish or of Scottish descent, they have the First Amendment, which provides a Constitutional guarantee of the right to freedom of speech.
In Britain, on the other hand, with our ramshackle collection of laws instead of a Constitution, and rights which can be amended or abandoned at the drop of a Lord’s hat, we have the offices of The Guardian being raided by M15 and its editor, Alan Rusbridger, being ordered to destroy the files containing the details of the Snowden revelations. And having no choice but to comply with that bullying. The Guardian and Rusbridger deserve great credit for the part they have played in the Snowden revelations. They have done their job and proved the point that “national interest” is not something which should be left to just governments to decide.
The British State has form in this. It banned Spycatcher the memoirs of the spy Peter Wright back in the 1980’s, and placed a gagging order on The Guardian and The Observer then too. Nor should it be forgotten that the European Court of Human Rights subsequently found that the Britain had breached the European Convention of Human Rights in restricting freedom of the press, at some cost to the tax-payer.
If all of this were not enough, we have the irony of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, coming up to Edinburgh yesterday, to deliver the latest chapter of one the most tedious serialisations in the history of television, Project Fear, warning us that we might be shut out of the illegal, immoral arrangements of British intelligence gathering. Maybe somebody ought to have reminded Theresa May that James Bond’s father was a Scotsman, and his greatest incarnation on the screen was played by Sean Connery.
As for the Unites States of America, where so many Scots have friends, family or descendants, it has for a long time now been betraying the admirable principles on which its Constitution was founded. The US may still be the world’s number one in terms of “hard power” – military, economic and diplomatic power – but its star has long since been on the wane in terms of “soft power”, which is to say, its appeal and its powers of seduction. America is no longer the Promised Land, the land of freedom and the bastion of human rights; it has further degenerated with the “War on Terror” into a centre of a mass surveillance which Stalin would have been proud of, with a gulag in Guantanamo to match.
What, at a personal level, can we do about the end of privacy? Perhaps treat the State in the same way that the State has been treating us all this time: which is to say, with suspicion, mistrust and a fair degree of contempt, and to guard the little privacy left to us as jealously as we can. There always was something much more elegant about the world when people wrote letters to each other rather than emails, and maybe we have to go back to that, even those of us “who have nothing to hide” to quote one of the glibbest utterances ever delivered by a Cabinet Minister in a Parliamentary chamber in the Western World.
Almost everybody has something to hide, or better said, something they would rather not reveal, something personal and almost invariably innocuous. That is what privacy is. And that is why it is considered a fundamental human right protected under Article 8 of the European Charter of Human Rights. Which just happens to be the very same Charter Theresa May talked about withdrawing the UK from at the last Conservative Party Conference.
Finally, a thought for Edward Snowden, a man who has risked so much for our liberty and freedom and who deserves our deepest gratitude. With Europe’s leaders engaged in the farcical charade of shock and outrage at NSA surveillance activities across the continent, an independent Scotland should do justice to Snowden and offer him asylum here.
Snowden has sacrificed a great deal to guard our freedom and defend the founding principles of democracy and the United States of America which are being trampled on by an elite who fail to see that they are engaged in activities which radically undermine the same ideas they claim to believe in.
By offering Snowden asylum, we would also do justice to Scotland’s own democratic tradition. And since the USA is an ally, how could Washington complain?
Finally, in terms of the referendum, the Snowden affairs illuminates yet again just what we are voting for next year. Do we want to be citizens of an independent Scotland which safeguards basic human rights like the right to privacy and freedom of speech in a written Constitution? Or would we rather carry on at the mercy of what GCHQ, Downing Street and the British State consider the “national interest”, even when that amounts to a systematic mass violation of the very same rights which democracy is founded upon, and relies upon to work properly?