John Kampfner: The price of our safety shouldn't be our freedom

The spivs and spooks play on our fears to ratchet up control at the expense of our liberties

Share

How can the security apparatus manage to invoke fear and derision in equal measure? That is the unlikely feat achieved by those seeking to keep Britain safe during the Olympics. The immediate causes of the G4S debacle might be specific to those who drew up the spendthrift and shoddy contract. The underlying reasons lie in the deference politicians display towards the securocracy. For the moment it is one that, seemingly, most voters share too.

The motivation is, on one level, entirely good. But it lacks proportion and perspective, allowing spivs to charge what they like (and do what they like) as they secure dodgy public-private partnerships, and allowing the spooks to maintain their longstanding tradition of playing on our each and every fear to ratchet up controls at the expense of individual liberty.

A small example a few months ago is illustrative. I was walking down a street near my home when I heard sirens. No surprise in that. A police car raced past. No surprise in that. It was followed by a people mover, with darkened windows. Its sliding door was open and paramilitary-attired officers were pointing out sub-machine guns at passers by. I have witnessed such scenes in the various authoritarian countries I have worked in. But this was central London in 2012. Once this cavalcade had passed I asked other pedestrians what they thought it might have been. "Something to do with terrorism" was the general answer. Nobody, it seemed, was that fussed.

This nightmare vision occurred long before the Olympics had begun to consume our lives. Our capital city has been turned into a security fortress. Ministers and security chiefs salivate on the airwaves as they portentously announce that planes could be shot down if they stray into the "exclusion zone".

Before I am accused of a) a lack of Olympian patriotism and b) a cavalier disregard for the dangers posed to national security, I should address these two points now. I was delighted when, in 2005, the games were awarded to London, and as a magazine editor had strongly backed the bid. Plus I'm looking forward to going to a couple of events.

On the security fears, I would insist I am as alive to them as anyone. Two of the Tube stations in 7/7 and the bus bombing were right next door to where I live. Someone in our street was killed. Security is the first task of any government. But at all costs? This is where the perennial debate begins – and ends.

Total security is a chimera, unless you seek to emulate the North Korean model, and even then it can't be guaranteed. Therefore policymakers and the public are always in the realms of risk assessment. Such is the global importance of the Olympics that ministers decided they would stop at nothing. The consequences of a co-ordinated terrorist spectacular or a lone madman on the rampage are too hideous to contemplate – not just in terms of human casualties, but in national reputation. Hence the fields are alive with the sight of anti-aircraft missiles and the Thames is adorned with gunships.

Now, with the G4S furore, soldiers are being deployed at days' notice to patrol Olympic venues. Given the requirements and the negligence of the contractor, there was probably no choice. Once again, nobody bats an eyelid.

It's in everyone's interests that these measures help secure a problem-free games. But once a threshold is crossed, in the name of security, it never moves back again. I predict that we have not seen the last of soldiers on the streets, aerial exclusion zones and anti-aircraft batteries (or their equivalents). If the emergency is deemed big enough, then the authorities will do "whatever it takes".

At first sight all this appears to be popular. Woe betide the politician who ever goes soft, on whose watch an incident takes place. Be scared, be very scared is the message incoming prime ministers and ministers have been told for decades. Editors are invited in for chats by the spooks. I recall more than once being told, after a convivial lunch, that a particular shopping centre was being targeted. True? Hunch? Small threads of flimsy intelligence dressed up as fact (the Iraq/WMD model)? Or disinformation? I would never know, but it always pays to err on the side of caution.

The political imperative points in one direction. Perspective and proportion are lost. How else could one explain the over-the-top reaction to the bus that was raided on the M6 after the police were alerted to the strange behaviour of a nicotine-replacement cigarette in a holdall? For miles around, the area was sealed off as in a war zone. Passengers were led off the bus, at gunpoint, and forced to sit cross-legged, Guantanamo style, on the motorway. More shruggings of shoulders.

Politically, there are few avenues for complaints. As the third party, the Liberal Democrats were usually the lone voices for civil liberties. In government, they genuflect a little in that direction, and seek to temper the worst excesses of Theresa May's Home Office, but, for the most part, they are silent. Labour, whose authoritarian leanings were one of the most consistent aspects of its 13-year rule, seeks to outdo the Conservative-led government in its control tendencies. Labour's critique on security issues is to blame ministers for incompetence and demand ever- greater measures.

Recently the government published a Communications Data Bill that will allow authorities virtually untrammelled rights to snoop on, not just emails and phone calls (a practice enshrined in legislation nearly a decade ago), but social media too. Labour's response was merely to criticise the manner of the announcement. Whatever the legislation or measure, the principle of the trade-off of our liberties is not contested.

In my last book, I asked why it was that people around the world – whatever their history, culture or political system – appear increasingly willing to trade their liberties in return for security and the prospect of prosperity. The latter part of the equation has, for almost everyone, fallen away. The Olympics suggest that our clamour for security and "order" is more pronounced than it has ever been. Measures justified as tailored to a particular "emergency" – the Olympics – might, before we know it, become a part of our daily lives. And we will have only ourselves to blame.

John Kampfner is author of 'Freedom For Sale' and 'Blair's Wars'

Twitter@johnkampfner

React Now

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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’  

Children's TV shows like Grange Hill used to connect us to the real world

Grace Dent
An Indian bookseller waits for customers at a roadside stall on World Book and Copyright Day in Mumbai  

Novel translation lets us know what is really happening in the world

Boyd Tonkin
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine