If you’re British, and you think you live in a democracy, I need to disabuse you
Consider the Communications Bill. That’s the bill that will supposedly allow the intelligence agencies to catch serious criminals and terrorists. But the only people it won’t catch are serious criminals and terrorists. And the only thing it will do is allow the government to know who you are talking to and where you go on the internet at all times and as you do it – at a huge cost to the public purse. (Incidental #1: The public purse is not government money. It is your money. The government doesn’t have any money. It is therefore taking your money to pay for a system to spy on you.)
Obnoxious as this is, it is not in itself undemocratic. You can argue that in a democracy, the electorate votes for a government and gives it the authority to make decisions without further reference to the electorate. (Incidental #2. I believe that this is a mis-interpretation of democracy developed and promoted by governments. I believe that in a democracy, the government is always subservient to the will of the people.)
But what is quite incredible is the experience of Conservative MP Dominic Raab. As a member of parliament he is being asked by the government to vote in favour of this bill. A fundamental part of the spying process will be the filter. ISPs are going to be asked to keep complete records of our communications and browsing. That will be a national database of everything, albeit spread across the different ISPs. Technically, not a problem – it’s a national database from a government that promised to ‘roll back the database state.’ The filter is the mechanism by which the agencies can get to what they want – that is, it is effectively a private government search engine for our emails.
Quite reasonably, Raab wanted to know more about what he was being asked – no, told – to vote for on our behalf. All he wants to know is the advice given to the Home Office to justify the filter. The Home Office said no. So with true Yorkshire grit (he can kiss goodbye to any government preferment in the future) he issued a freedom of information request. But again the Home Office said “no, national security issues, don’t you know old boy.”
So he referred it to the Information Commissioner. The Information Commissioner has requested more information from the Home Office so that he can make a ruling on whether the refusal of the FoI request is justified. The Home Office has just over 20 working days from now to respond or face potential legal action for what amounts to contempt.
My bet is that the Home Office will respond, but we won’t know how, because the Information Commissioner will agree that it is in national security interests to withhold the information. His only alternative is to side with the people, upset the government and kiss goodbye to his knighthood – just like Raab. I will be delighted and will beg his forgiveness for besmirching his noble position if he sides with the people. I doubt that I will have to.
But step back and think about this. The Home Office is demanding that our elected representatives simply do what they’re told with no understanding nor knowledge of what exactly they’re doing. That, I fear, is democracy in 21st Century Britain: we elect people to do what the government wants which is what big business and secret services want. What the electorate wants is irrelevant.