Simon Carr: I believe I have a right not to be spied on

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was almost two years ago that the home secretary of the day, Charles Clarke, had a pop at me for the civil liberties article I'd written. Recent events have shown it's not entirely clear why Charles says what he says. We may only find out when he donates his brain to medical science and they drain it. That day, we all hope, is far, far away.

One assertion in the article had been that public officials down to council level would be able to call up our internet records whenever they wanted. "Wholly wrong," he said. Under the relevant Act, RIP 2000, "Local authorities are unable to acquire communications traffic data." But now we know that councils are tapping phones like billyoh, all over their territory in pursuit of various community criminals. Nick Clegg put three, legally unrelated, issues to the Prime Minister last week.

Five thousand schools are taking the finger prints of schoolchildren as a matter of course; there are one million DNA records of innocent people held by the police; 1,000 requests a day are made for surveillance. "The Prime Minister seems to see no limits," Clegg said. "He is creating a surveillance state."

If only. The prime minister isn't creating it and has no power to stop it.

What we have emerging in Britain is a general cultural movement in favour of surveillance. There is a growing sense that society generally and the state in particular should take an active interest in all individual activity. And that this is right, proper and inevitable.

One of the interviewers on the Today programme last week told us that the Wellcome Trust spent £4bn a year without (and a note of indignation gave edge to her next words) any public accountability at all. That the money was being deployed just because Sir Henry Wellcome wanted it like that. No public accountability of £4bn? No transparency? The will of one man?

And no opportunity for the public, the government, the Today programme to scrutinise the spending and judge whether it was serving our social objectives? The fact that Wellcome's spending sounds scandalous (though it's all private money) shows how far we've travelled along this line. The legal concept of the Trust is one of the country's founding facts.

In the early Middle Ages, it became possible under English common law to put your property or enterprise into a trust, thereby protecting it from much State attention.

Schools, hospitals, land, orchestras, associations of all sorts took this option and produced an independence of mind and action that came to be characteristically English (and then characteristically British).

Now, it's all going one way; the movement is still growing in strength. We're witnessing something like Rousseau's "general will" in a preliminary stage of development. Polls, politics, television, public opinion, the insurance industry, the state sector, they are all combining to exert public "general will" rights over the private sphere.

Laying down an approved way of doing things is one expression of this. "Best practice" it is sometime called. Or "directives" or "targets" or "operational guidance". Policemen are prevented from jumping in to a lake to save a child because that behaviour is not on the list. It's not approved by the general will.

The State has a powerful incentive and logic driving it: it is spending so much of our money to help us that it has the right to demand appropriate behaviour in return. We are just one step away from being forced to be free.

Koko ain't no clown

What a pleasure to see Koko the Gorilla is still alive, she must be nearly 40-years-old. She was taught American sign language when she was young, she uses 1,000 signs, understands 2,000 human words, constructs statements of three to six words, and scores between 70 and 95 on human IQ tests (normal is 100). And now she's painting. Her technique may be a little conventional for the critics; the physical symbolism in Love, left, is a bit obvious to attract praise from the professionals, the abstraction hasn't gone quite to its limit. Her friend Michael's picture of his dog, that is hardly abstracted at all. It's all at, including the Love picture – ideal for Valentine's Day.

* The cult of the journalist's clever adjective, it's got to stop. Martin Amis started it 30 years ago (possibly with "ludic") but enough's enough. Putting one of these $50 words into newspaper prose is becoming a form a reader-abuse.

"Corrosive." "Sulphurous." "Pungent". You can feel the writer's relief at having been able to give authority to his paragraph. "Magisterial". We have to stop using the word "magisterial". Ditto "degringolade".

If I see that little interjection, "Whisper it" I shall call the police. Likewise, "What's not to like ?" and "Up to a point, Lord Copper". And those little confections that lend a disengaged air to the writer, to imply he is so far above it all he doesn't have to care. "His slightly breathless account." "Advanced (or daring) opinions." "A thoughtful speech."

Others have really had it. Colloquial expressions in brackets ("wake up at the back!") or "hey" as in ("but hey, who's counting?") This is the last warning!

PS: On reflection, "a little confection" is in error as well.