Saturday 19 November 2011

Bank of Ideas - The Surveillance State

During the week, protesters against the banks and the power of the City of London set up the Bank of Ideas, the new squatted space at an office block owned by the Swiss bank USB in Sun Street. The Bank of Ideas has been running a series of lectures and discussions and at 2pm this afternoon, I dropped in to listen to Nick Pickles from Big Brother Watch on "The Surveillance State".

What intrigued me was the choice of speaker by Occupy London activists: after all, Pickles (right) was a Conservative Party candidate in West Yorkshire and Big Brother Watch has close associations with the right-wing Taxpayers Alliance (it shares a Chief Executive, Matthew Elliot). It is most definitely a creature of the right: it's first director Alex Deane was David Cameron’s first chief of staff. That doesn't mean the libertarian right hasn't been making some valid arguments about civil liberties and the power of the state, just as the centre-left, particularly under the Blair government, decided that individual freedoms should be abandoned, indeed sacrificed completely, in the name of 'security'.

As a result, there was little that I would necessarily disagree with as Nick Pickles outlined concerns about the growth of government databases, the unaccountable influence of Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) or the misuse of police powers of stop & search. However, much of the debate today concentrated on privacy and data protection issues and Pickles spoke a lot about local councils and the NHS, the right's traditional focus of attack (although defending the intrusive actions of useless councils and hospital trusts simply because they are public sector bodies is a trap that the left should really try and avoid more often - the state is still the state, even if it is threatened with cuts).

Where I also disagreed completely was in the emphasis on why abuses of civil liberties happen - for instance, I don't accept the argument made by Pickles that it is also the fault of bureaucratic target setting and incompetence, or that police officers actively resent having to conduct arbitrary stops and searches to meet targets. All the evidence available suggests that officers actually relish the power they exercise, especially over young people (for instance, see the Newham scrutiny commission report on stop & search [PDF] released last week). The powers to interfere, intimidate and spy on people's lives are deliberate, not accidental. Furthermore, I still think Big Brother Watch, like others, places far too much emphasis on legal processes after people's rights have been abused. This continues to feel like a response that is too late, is too much like desperately holding the line in the face of a growing surveillance state and is far too dependent upon the uncertain decision-making of another conservative part of the establishment, the judiciary.

Nevertheless, many of the points made by Pickles are arguments that sections of the protest movement are themselves making and are highlighted by the campaign led by the Network for Police Monitoring, 'Kettling the Powers of the Police'. The position of Big Brother Watch may be similar to that adopted by groups like Liberty, who I have different problems with. But they did turn up and speak at the Bank of Ideas - which, to be honest, I can't imagine that Shami Chakrabarti would ever contemplate.

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