"Edward Snowden has started a global debate. So why the silence in Britain?
We're subject to huge unwarranted surveillance – but Westminster's useful idiots are more likely to sanction than criticise it
The Brazilian president cancels a state visit to Washington. The German foreign minister talks of "a Hollywood nightmare". His chancellor, Angela Merkel, ponders offering Edward Snowden asylum. The EU may even end the "safe harbour" directive which would force US-based computer servers to relocate to European regulation. Russians and Chinese, so often accused of cyber-espionage, hop with glee.
In response, an embarrassed Barack Obama pleads for debate and a review of the Patriot Acts. Al Gore refers to the Snowden revelations as "obscenely outrageous". The rightwing John McCain declares a review "entirely appropriate". The Senate holds public hearings and summons security chiefs, who squirm like mafia bosses on the run. America's once dominant internet giants, with 80% of the globe under their sway, now face "Balkanised" regulation round the world as nation states seek to repatriate digital sovereignty.
And in Britain? Nothing. From parliament, the courts, and most of the media, nothing. Snowden, the most significant whistleblower of modern times, briefly amused London when he turned scarlet pimpernel in the summer; then the capital was intrigued when David Miranda was seized by Heathrow police on bogus "terrorism" charges. But the British establishment cannot get excited. It hates whistleblowers, regarding them as not proper chaps.
Nothing better illustrates the gulf that sometimes opens between British and American concepts of democracy. Congress is no puppet of the executive. The US may be brutal in its treatment of leakers such as Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, but the fourth amendment lurks deep in its culture, protecting privacy from the state without due process and "probable cause". Britain has no such amendment.
What moved Americans about Snowden was not just the scale of NSA hoovering of data – though polls indicate strong aversion – but the lying to Congress. Snowden, a Republican former soldier, was simply shocked at the clear collapse of congressional and judicial oversight. The US had lurched into aping precisely the totalitarian regimes it professed to guard against.
Any reading of the Snowden material suggests that US and British agents were up to the same tricks. They were sharing data through Prism, plainly circumventing each country's domestic oversight regimes. Britain's Tempora programme, involving the mass tapping of fibre-optic cables belonging to BT, Verizon, Vodafone and others, meant that GCHQ was possibly a bigger intelligence gatherer even than the NSA, a key player in what Snowden called "the largest suspicion-less surveillance in human history". Its value to the US is evidenced by the £100m the country pays for its surveillance services.
An estimated 850,000 American officials and contractors are thought to have access to this material. Though every activity is said to require the warrant of a US court and a "senior minister" in Britain, this is palpably absurd. There are millions of dips each year, a vast trawl of data. While the NSA is supposedly overseen by a foreign intelligence surveillance court – now exposed as ineffective through being secret – GCHQ professes "a light oversight regime compared with the US". Its overseers are patsies.
Yet none of this seems to turn a hair in London. While Washington has been tearing itself apart, dismissive remarks by William Hague in the Commons and Lady Warsi in the Lords could have passed muster in Andropov's supreme soviet. Hague said merely that everything was "authorised, necessary, proportionate and targeted". National security was not for discussion. British oversight was "the strongest … anywhere in the world". This remark – contradicted by GCHQ itself – went unchallenged.
Meanwhile Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, head of the intelligence and security committee and supposed champion of citizens against state intrusion, positively grovelled towards GCHQ. He said we should all defer to "those involved in intelligence work". He even cancelled a public hearing with the security chiefs for fear of embarrassing them.
For Labour, Yvette Cooper claimed obscurely she "long believed in stronger oversight" but she was drowned by a dad's army of former defence and home secretaries, such as Lord Reid, Lord King and Jack Straw. All rallied to the securocrats' banner in shrill unison. I sometimes think these people would bring back the rack, the whip and the gallows if "vital for national security".
The reality is that Britons generally have little trouble with the authority of the state. The historian of espionage, Ben McIntyre, has suggested that this trust is embedded in the class system, aided by the vague glamour of James Bond and George Smiley. GCHQ, he says, is seen as "a club of amiable gentlemen in shaggy tweed jackets," probably still fighting the Nazis. Like all toffs, this officer class may behave badly, but its heart is in the right place. It keeps the evil foreigner at bay. Besides, as Hague says, "the law-abiding citizen has nothing to fear".
A few people still hold to the futurist ideology that all things digital are benign. Since I see the digital revolution as one of means not ends, I am less convinced. A huge industry has shrunk the globe and vastly increased transparency, but it is poised to corrupt the very freedoms it professes to advance. The market is no guard against it, only democratic oversight. If that fails, as it has, everything is at risk.
The UK reaction to Snowden may in part be an awareness of cant and hypocrisy. All governments have played fast and loose with privacy. Besides, half the world is still intoxicated by the novelty of social media. If the NSA bugs Brazilian oil companies during licence talks, so what? Everyone does it. Perhaps we should just calm down.
This might pass muster if we were merely letting sleeping dogs lie. These lying dogs are not sleeping. The need for the state to acquire and guard some secrets is not in question. But such a claim has been blown out of all proportion. We have created a monster that has overwhelmed the defences put in place to regulate it. I suspect neither Hague nor Rifkind had any clue of the Prism and Tempora programmes. They are the useful idiots of the security classes. But if they thought it best to believe everything the security services told them, they should now be the wiser. They should know, as do their American counterparts, that they were duped.
Britons are not only subject to massive unwarranted surveillance, surveillance that is insecure and unaccountable. They are also at the mercy of intrusive institutions which, for the time being, their politicians will not and cannot control. When push comes to shove, Americans do this better." Simon Jenkins, Guardian 19/9/13