e live at a time when many of the certainties taken
for granted by our parents and grandparents are
being destroyed under our very eyes.
Even in the socialist Seventies, no one imagined the
Government could control not one, not two, but three
High Street banks.
Our forefathers also believed, with some
justification, that Britain was the freest country
in the world.
Every call you make, every visit to an internet
site, every e-mail you send - all will be logged and
stored in some vast Government computer, if Ms Smith
has her way.
If this had been proposed ten years ago, no one
would have believed it. Even now, after ten years of
creeping surveillance by an authoritarian
Government, it seems incredible.
The Home Secretary envisages a society more spied
upon than communist East Germany was under the
Stasi, and potentially more watched over than George
Orwell's nightmarish society in his novel 1984.
That is what I mean about the speed of change. None
of our treasured assumptions holds true.
A Labour Home Secretary can propose changes which
offend against the values our grandfathers held dear
- and for which, in part, they fought - without any
apparent sense that she is flying in the face of
hundreds of years of history, and certainly without
the smallest indication of shame or sign of regret.
How did this come about? The Labour Party may have
traditionally harboured fellow travellers and
communist sympathisers who had no difficulty with
the concept of overweening state control.
But it was also a party of liberty and freedom. For
many years, while in opposition, Labour voted
against the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Northern
Whether it was right or wrong in that case, it was
steadfastly opposed to the state assuming
exceptional powers to deal with terrorism.
All that is dead and buried. Labour is now the party
of state control, and its traditional love of
freedom is restricted to a few maverick backbenchers
whose views are ignored by the hierarchy.
Its old veneration for individual liberty has gone
the way of Nineveh and Tyre.
Maybe the party's Stalinist leanings were always
stronger than we thought. Maybe it has succumbed to
the nexus of spooks and security freaks that lurks
at the heart of Whitehall.
What is in a way even more shocking is that most of
us do not object very much. In the Sixties, students
demonstrated, possibly a little hysterically,
against their academic records being held on file by
Even under present arrangements, the Government can
find out which phone calls we have made, and which
e-mails we have sent, going back one year, which is
a far more onerous form of supervision than a few
And yet, like bovine subjects in a science fiction
fantasy who have been schooled into docility by the
authorities, we scarcely let out a whimper of
I understand, of course, that we face a threat from
extremist Islamic terrorists - the true extent of
which it is impossible to evaluate. Special measures
have to be considered.
But they should not include a form of surveillance
over the private lives of perfectly law-abiding
individuals which is open to abuse by the state.
Would it not be preferable - and more consonant with
the principle of individual liberty - if
foreign-born suspected terrorists could be deported
from this country?
And can't home-grown suspected terrorists be
surveyed and watched without all of us being
subjected to intrusive surveillance that is bound to
can be certain it would be. Jacqui Smith foresees
the powers being used to help track down suspected
terrorists and criminals, but before long details of
our e-mails and phone calls would fall into the
hands of other servants of the state whose
responsibilities have nothing do with the prevention
of terrorism or crime.
At the moment, believe it or not, the authorities
launch bugging operations against 1,000 people a
In the last nine months of 2006, 253,557
applications were made to track phone calls, private
correspondence and other communications, the great
majority of which were granted.
Most of these had nothing to do with terrorism or
crime. Some 800 agencies, including nearly 500
councils, have the right to snoop on our e-mails.
It is true that Ms Smith does not envisage the state
being able to read the contents of our e-mails, or
listen to our calls, without a warrant. It is clear,
though, that under present arrangements a warrant is
easy to obtain.
The monitoring of our private communications by
various agencies of the state that already takes
place would become easier once intimate information
about all of us was held in a single permanent
And then, of course, we can be sure that some
official would leave a laptop or data stick,
containing the details of millions of people, in a
Even if I believed the Government had the right to
hold such data - which I obviously don't - I would
have no confidence that civil servants who have lost
computer disks concerning the tax affairs of 25
million citizens could be trusted with information
about our private communications.
Earlier this week, the Government was forced to back
down over its Bill to extend the period which
suspects can be held without charge from 28 to 42
Though the Lords should be congratulated for
defeating the measure, the powers, had they been
approved, would have affected only a handful of
By contrast, Ms Smith's proposals are much more
pervasive since they would affect all of us.
I don't want my e-mails routinely inspected, or my
phone calls listened to, by someone sitting in
Cheltenham GCHQ, and I am sure neither do you.
I don't want to live in a country where that is
possible. It would not be the country of our parents
nor the one our forefathers fought for - nor the
country that we were told, when we were children,
that we were blessed to live in.
We already live in a fledging Stasi state, and we
should fight to ensure we do not live in a fully
If Jacqui Smith gets her database, the terrorists
will have won. They will have destroyed our values
and our conviction, old-fashioned but still worth
cherishing and defending, that individual liberty is
of pre-eminent importance.
This is not a war - I mean the one against ever
greater surveillance - which those who believe in a
free society can afford to lose.
Stephen Glover, Daily Mail