James Cusick

We see through Cameron’s talk of transparency

Mantras on openness have been exposed for what they are –  detox marketing

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits