The Dalai Lama or the Supreme Court Justice, William O’Douglas? The options for David Cameron’s speechwriters are often extreme. In the trawl for wisdom to back up the Prime Minister’s revolution on open government, Tibetan aphorisms on mistrust were probably ditched in favour of the US judge who wrote: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Cameron appropriated this and added: “Information is power … greater transparency across government is at the heart of our shared commitment.”
In full flow, Cameron sounds more evangelical than Tony Blair. Information and transparency allow people to “hold the powerful to account” he said. It’s a national asset “and it’s time it was shared”. I checked. Cameron’s transparency promises from 2011 still have a political heartbeat, but their ECG is flatlining. Measured against the recent offensive by No 10, aiming to prevent further disclosure on the mass US and UK government surveillance operations contained in the NSA leaks by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden, mantras on openness have been exposed for what they are – detox marketing, masking a deeper agenda altogether. Let’s get the perspective right here. Snowden is not a deranged update of Kim Philby, betraying British and US national security services, threatening the balance of the digital war being waged against global terror.
No. Snowden is a political inconvenience, digging up the still ill-defined territory that spans freedom and liberty in the internet age. And regardless of his serial promises on transparency, Cameron has been exposed as a closet authoritarian, someone who believes that only he, in this debate, should call the shots on how much the public should be told.
There’s a telling sentence in an article the Prime Minister wrote two years ago as part of his transparency launch. It said: “Limited exemptions on national security and personal privacy will be permitted.” I missed the relevance of the word ”permitted”, but I get it now: transparency was never the real issue; control and permission were the touchstones.
After three weeks of articles linked to the leaked NSA material, Cameron ordered one of his closest aides to make some calls. Forget the Orwellian appeal that people sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to protect. The Cameron-approved message was more simplistic. “You’ve had your fun. We want our stuff back.”
Fun? The reporting of covert government surveillance operations that read every email or text sent, with or without legal authority, dismissed as trivial amusement? In the post-Leveson debate on media control, the issue for Cameron clearly isn’t about a royal charter or variants; it’s about letting his government decide where its power begins and ends. The authoritarian streak goes deeper. Why did the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, threaten the editor of The Guardian and order the primitive destruction of a couple of computers? No 10 has heard of memory sticks like the rest of us, so the destruction should be seen as the pathetic equivalent of a Lord Protector asserting rule over decisions taken on national interest. Those who advised Cameron that transparency was a sellable product and that open dialogue would go down well over the five years of his austerity-tagged administration are now looking at an eroding project.
“Transparency” was seen as interconnected with credibility and trust. That has been exposed as fake, politically fraudulent. For the final two years of his premiership, according to some former Tory ministers I’ve spoken to, Cameron should divorce his closeness with transparency and, as one said, “find another word to play with. This one’s done”.
Take the flagship “Transparency of Lobbying” bill: the cure-all to Cameron’s pre‑election forecast that Britain’s lobbying industry sheltered “the next big scandal waiting to happen”. On the eve of its passage through the Commons, it’s been savaged as a rushed “dog’s breakfast”. And rather than “shine a light” on rogue lobbyists, it will instead protect those who assert a powerful influence on the government.
Perhaps the warnings were already there in the shape of Lynton Crosby, his party’s chief election strategist. The client list of Crosby’s company included the US tobacco giant Philip Morris. After the Government shelved plans to outlaw cigarette packaging, questions were asked about Crosby’s influence and his discussions inside No 10 over the policy.
Before taking the strategy job, Crosby chaired a meeting of the tobacco industry which discussed blocking the plain packaging plans. Transparency. Opening up government. The right to know. They all evaporated as Cameron refused to discuss whether he even held a conversation with Crosby on the subject. “I have never been lobbied by Mr Crosby on anything,” he said. That wasn’t the question. But that this is the quiet reality about Cameron’s love affair with transparency: whether it’s tobacco or GCHQ or lobbying, it’s not about what right the public has to know, and who should be protected. Inside Cameron’s authoritarian administration, there is only one place that merits full protection – and that’s the Government itself.
These are damaging times. Washington has distanced itself from Downing Street’s back-firing remedy of raiding a newspaper office. Snowden has more to come on the scale of privatised intelligence work, on both sides of the Atlantic, that will do little to back up assurances from Nick Clegg that the Coalition’s concern was “national security” and the dangers of material falling into insecure hands.
Cameron’s party support is weak, allied to concerns that what he says often never matches what he eventually does. He oversold transparency – and the old accusations of inconsistency are back.