If Her Majesty will forgive the double impertinence of a) inveigling her to provoke a constitutional crisis, and b) putting inelegant words into her mouth, I urge my sovereign to ad lib during next month's Queen's Speech as follows. "My Government will introduce legislation to strengthen the surveillance of electronic communic... I'm sorry, I've had it. Sixty years I've sat here, parroting whatever cobblers my Government has come up with, and until today I have confined the contempt to a barely perceptible twitch of an eyebrow. But this! I mean, really. As one's grandchildren might put it in an email, FFS... "
Ah well, they can't stop us dreaming, though no doubt when scanning technology perfects the interpretation of rapid eye movement, they will demand access to our dreams in the interests of national security. But hark at me using the pronoun of choice of the madman muttering about what "they" want to do to him. As if the enemies of freedom are an invisible cabal of the sinister and malign. They aren't. They are an obviously well-intentioned Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Secretary, and they could not be more overt about their love of covert watchfulness.
There is much to hate about this latest sortie of Coalition lemmings towards the precipice of unelectability, but what makes me most apoplectic is this: the supposedly sane and rational "they" in plain sight are usurping the phantasmal "they" who intercept the nutter on the bus's brainwaves. It is not the business of those who serve us to turn us all into paranoiacs by treating us as potential terrorists and psychopaths. This, much like our emails, is none of their beeswax. A people should not be afraid of its government, as the Fawkesian superhero of V For Vendetta declares before destroying Parliament. A government should be afraid of its people.
All democratic governments are scared of their people, of course, or at least of the media that is its conduit to them. So it's long odds-on that Her Maj will say nothing about this meisterplan once Black Rod has done the business. David Cameron, it seems, will yield to as unanimously scornful a reception as any mooted legislation has had in memory. A wise PM would wait a few days for the fuss to fade, restate his conviction that this is essential, humbly acknowledge the widespread concerns about practicality and the dangers of abuse, devolve it to a committee for further consideration, and never, ever speak of it again.
Even if the reports that he will indeed follow this advice are accurate, is Mr Cameron a wise PM? The post-Budget evidence suggests not. What he increasingly appears, though we should not underestimate his powers of recovery, is callow, shallow and a blithering chump. If a Labour government with a solid majority was forced to abandon such legislation in 2009, by the near-universal antipathy Mr Cameron expressed so well himself, what possessed him to imagine that he, with no Tory majority, could whip it through? And if even if he could, what did he think the Lords would do to it? His hypocrisy, though damaging in the drip-drip osmotic manner that solidifies a hunch into a perceived certainty, is explicable. Champions of civil liberties in opposition, like Mr Blair, are routinely spooked into reneging in power. It is easy to be blithe about resisting intelligence briefings as an insurgent leader; but hard when sonorous smoothies in dark suits warn that unless you act on their advice, people will be blown to smithereens.
But hard is far from impossible. What is impossible is imagining a politician with long experience of Whitehall, who has heard this doomy schtick time and again from Scotland Yard and MI5, and with Saddam's WMD from MI6, making this mistake. Leathery old pros like Margaret Thatcher, for instance, who showed such restraint after the Brighton bombing, or her portly nemesis Ken Clarke. Kenneth would have drawled that, while he appreciates it is our protectors' business to seek ever more intrusive powers, they seem to be doing fine with the powers they have. The only innocent killed in a terrorism-related incident since July 7, 2005, he might have reminded them, was Jean Charles de Menezes.
Unquestionably, there are many people out there with evil intent, but even the dumbest will communicate with compadres in ways that no surveillance could unearth. Are you seriously suggesting, Ken would add, that we close every internet café, make the public telephone box extinct, and outlaw pay-as-you-go smartphones? In the week Leveson heard more about the cosy relationship between the News of the World and the Met, do you honestly think this is the time to increase police access to confidential information?
What will hurt Mr Cameron even more than the impression of amateur-hour feebleness is his own eloquence. In his attack on Labour's near-identical proposal less than three years ago, he spoke of "scare tactics to herd more disempowered citizens into the clutches of officialdom, as people surrender more and more information about their lives, giving the state more and more powers over their lives. If we want to stop the state controlling us," he concluded, "we must confront the surveillance state." Who could put it better? That speech had the rare and priceless ring of authenticity. His disgust for New Labour's autocratic instincts seemed entirely genuine; a glimpse into his political soul. We have a special intensity of rage for those who con us about themselves, because it tells something unpalatable about our judgment of character.
The belief in personal freedom from state control is not negotiable. You cannot apply Keynes' economic dictum that "When the facts change, I change my mind" to this, though in this case there is no known evidence that the warrant-free examination of online, email and social network activity would pre-empt crimes. In a sensationally daft Sun article, Theresa May cites Ian Huntley's capture in support of her legislation, and in doing so makes a lethal case against it. Does it need stating that Huntley was caught, following a classically flawed police operation, after he had killed those girls in Soham, and not before? Yet the fact that all the electronic surveillance in the world would not have prevented those murders is not so much beside the point as the reverse of the point, which is a simple one. You either believe in the primacy of liberty – that the risk of death and destruction is the protection money a civilised society pays for it – or you do not. If you switch from one end of the spectrum to its polar extreme, what choice do the rest of us have other than to take you for a soulless opportunist who believes in absolutely nothing at all?Reuse content