Dan Hodges and Civil Liberties….
Sometimes, it’s hard to know whether to take Dan Hodges seriously or not. You can’t help but wonder if he is the creation of some mischievous and perpetually contrarian political god who has a particularly annoying sense of humour. It was therefore only when I got half-way through his latest column on civil liberties that I finally decided he was in fact, sadly, being totally serious.
Let’s start at the bottom with the old canard about it being a trade-off between civil liberties v security and that less civil liberties will save lives. This is totally untrue. Politicians who take the Hodge’s line simply don’t want to tell people the truth. The truth is that if even the most authoritarian states known to history could not stop terrorist attacks then there is a better than even chance that even if we became the disturbingly 1984-esq society that exists in the fevered and excited imagination of Hodges there would still be terrorist attacks happen and innocent people would still lose their lives. So, his fear-mongering is creating a false intellectual framework which this discourse operates in.
David Davis framed his objections to these proposals rather better, saying they were “unnecessary”. This is what we need to consider, what is realistically possible and necessary. Obviously, the aim is still minimise the terrorist threat to the lives of the innocent but it is completely bogus to keep up the pretence that complete neutralisation is on the table. The issue then becomes about practically where the balance is struck to achieve the best results, not the ideal ones and even here these proposals fall majorly short of convincing.
The amount of information that GCHQ and the other services would be receiving at any given time is vast and so finding the right thing that would lead to the desired outcome still is very much needle-in-a-haystack stuff. You have to know what and who you’re looking for precisely and that still involves the human element of guesswork, which is of course subject to error, unless you’re prepared to cross the ‘Hodge’s line’ and install CCTV in every home and keep every citizen under 24/7 surveillance. Even then, there are ways to beat that system, so your ‘saving lives’ argument is subject to easy and quick refutation. This reveals the real solution to these problems, intelligence is not guaranteed to be successful at prevention by the amount of information the state is allowed to snoop on at all but by the quality and ability of the intelligence operatives, also, incidentally, the better the operatives, the less information and access like this they require. In other words, the solution is to remember the human angle to the equation, to put quality over quantity.
Furthermore, the more the state generates hostility in the wider population by snooping unnecessarily, the less co-operative people become and the harder the job of harm prevention actually becomes. In some cases, people will even be more susceptible to the argument that you should take up arms against the state; conversely, the more free and open a society is the easier it is to weed out those who threaten it. It’s a bit like the difference between trying to weed a tangled and knotty bush and a open and exposed green lawn.
Credit should be given where it is due. It looks like Ed Miliband is ignoring the siren voice of Dan Hodges and those on the Labour right who are all for a hyperactive state when it comes to crushing people’s fundamental freedoms (but seem to be less keen on any state activism to address our terribly unequal society). This is good news and a positive step forward. Long may it continue.