Mainstreaming Watergate

indexThere 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.


Comments (6)

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  1. C Rober says:

    Spyware on pcs , laptops , macs , i phones , android , Facebook , tablets. America spying on Heads of State through American tech like Blackberry and Apple. Windows 10 , oh thats pushing the envelope on tracking.

    We are all too eager to sell off to the non paying bidder our personal information , is that to wear us down , like the topic perhaps suggests has already happened , ie “cant see how it was a big problem vis ve watergate today” as Facebook and twitter knows when you go for a shit.

    Should Westminster though have untapped reserves of surveillance on UK politicians , no , but why should therefore the non politician , the electorate , not fair in the same manner?

    Huawei , Zte , Xiiomi , are often brought up on spying for the state accusations in the technical American media of spying.

    Then it trickles down to the UK chip wrappers and media whores of Westminster , whom blow it out of proportion , or is just as sinister to use it as a way to block imports , protecting good old U.S of American business first – whom do exactly the same?

    During the Arab spring , Cameron et al at Westminster shouted from the roofs about freedom of speech , same again about those protesters in Hong Kong later , yet enacted controls on the UK digital network , similar to those Arab countries after the London Riots.

    Best way to remain private , drop the digital , say goodbye to the net with its email and bonjour to gps enable mobiles.

  2. Marland says:

    This reminds me so much of Spain in the 70s under the dictator Franco when tourists and students went to Spain and thought everything there was sunny and jolly.

    As a student on a year abroad, however, I soon discovered from my new Spanish friends that every place I went was watched: there was an informer in every classroom, a janitor reporting our comings and goings at the student residence, a civil guard or plain cloths agent on every bus and train … there was plenty of cheap labour in those days to do the job of our modern CCTV, Prism and Tempora!

    Most interesting of all was when I found out about the press’s self-censorship: if they didn’t want to be closed down after publication, they made sure they didn’t print anything that was liable to be censored beforehand, i.e. in that society you pre-emptively silenced yourself if you wanted to survive!

    This is echoed now in an age where everything is similarly ‘pre-emptive’: pre-emptive strikes by drones on anything that moves ‘like’ a terrorist; pre-emptive D notices on media reporting of issues of public interest; pre-emptive restrictions by banks on how much of your own money you can transfer or withdraw in pre-emptive preparation for the abolishing of cash all together; pre-emptive incarceration of youngsters with misguided ideas of hatching impossible plots; pre-emptive censorship and possible arrest of anybody saying anything remotely possible of being defined as ‘non-violently extremist’ (unfortunately Santa Teresa May isn’t pre-emptively defining what the term exactly means, so we can’t pre-emptively stop ourselves from saying anything she might pre-emptively dislike).

    From personal experience of the journey of Spain over the last 50 years, I see nothing very different between their ‘silenced’ society then and now (a meeting of more than one person is still potentially an illegal gathering) and nothing really different between Franco’s dictatorship and the extremely non-violently extremist UK government we now live under here.

    Of course, I never said any of the above – it was written by an NSA troll robot …

  3. David Sillars says:

    Combine the surveillance with an unnamed General threatening a coup if Corbyn should be elected, the rolling back of the Freedom of Information through the appointment of Straw and Howard etc, the threat to the Human Rights legalisation, we are in a very precarious position.
    The SNP must take an even more libertarian position on all this to represent the Scottish interests. They should promise to roll all this back in the event of independence and in the meantime they should expose this by confirming the threats. They should also oppose every instance of this in Westminster and everywhere they can.

  4. Angus McCowan says:

    I make an assumption that before, during and after last years’ referendum, westminster government spied and eves dropped on the YES Campaign. This means the main backers of the no campaign were able to deploy strategies against ‘known’ tactics of YES Campaign. Conversely, the YES Campaign had to predict tactics of no campaign resulting in YES Campaign being on defensive and no campaign on the attack. In other words an unfair advantage obtained by scurrilous and illegal means. Reported and supported by state broadcaster and press owned out with Scotland.

    But, because westminster controls security forces this cannot be proved unless someone like Snowden comes forward.

    Snowden and wiki leaks were attacked so ferociously by governments and press because they were telling us what scurrilous and illegal spying ‘OUR’ governments were undertaking against ‘US’ the people. Deeply embarrassing for the governments and deeply disturbing for the people.

    We have a great dept to whistleblowers, it is unfortuneate we the people appear powerless to help them after their sacrifice to us and they end up in exile or prison.

  5. Anton says:

    Another excellent post from Bella.

  6. Justin Kenrick says:

    “We are now all being spied on as closely as were the citizens of East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall” AND it is now legal for the Establishment to do what Nixon had to resign for doing.

    It’s almost as if the Establishment is giving us the worst parts of the previous Soviet political system (surveillance and control, but not equality) AND the worst parts of the Capitalist political system (extreme wealth for the already obscenely wealthy, and increasing impoverishment and control of the rest).

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