British Constitutional Theory and Blair and Cameron’s Surveillance State

Over the past few decades we’ve seen the powers of the secret state expand massively, and there are ever-increasing demands for increased powers of surveillance and data-gathering. A few days ago the government intended to pass a bill stipulating that the internet companies should keep browsing histories for a year, just in case the police or security agencies were interested. The power to look at these was to be granted by ministers, rather than judges. Cameron, however, backed down at the last minute, faced with what looks like another rebellion in the Lords.

If this is really what happened, then the Lords are right. And Cameron should know it, if he has any idea of British constitutional theory, or even a grounding in the Classics.

Which given the fact that he didn’t know what Magna Carta was, wouldn’t surprise me.

Since the Middle Ages there has been a long line of British political theorists firmly opposed to the expansion of the powers of the state to spy, prosecute and control. In the Middle Ages the percentage of criminal cases, which resulted in a conviction was low – about five per cent. Nevertheless, medieval English political theorists during the Fifteenth century considered that this was an acceptable price to pay for protecting the citizen from oppression and malicious prosecution by a tyrannical state. They compared the turbulent state of contemporary England with France. France was more peaceful, but this, they believed, had been purchased at the price of a despotic, absolute state.

This attitude continued into the 18th century. Blackstone, one of the greatest British constitutional theorists and historians, declared that it was better that ten thieves and criminals should escape, than one good man should be hanged.

And as someone, who no doubt has studied the Classics as part of their expensive education at Eton, Cameron should know very well the attitude of the Roman historians to the corrupt and brutal Roman Emperors, who ruled by fear, and had networks of spies and informers. Like Nero or Caligula.

This does not mean that there isn’t a very strong authoritarian strain in British politics. Britain became extremely authoritarian during the French Revolution, when all manner of legislation was passed against radical groups, popular assemblies and trade unions.

But this is counterbalanced by a political tradition firmly opposed to despotism, and which also stands opposed to the massive expansion of the surveillance state, which is increasingly demanding information on each of its citizens.

This is only a few sketchy thoughts on the issue at the moment. But it is an extremely worrying issue, which I intend to pursue further.

As for my own thoughts on crime and terrorism – I want criminals and terrorists to be caught and properly punished from their crimes in a court of law. I want the police to have sufficient powers to be able to do this. But I don’t want them to have more power than needed, at the expense of the liberty of ordinary people. This latter is what Cameron’s proposed reforms undermine.

And one other saying is important here: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

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