Surely this is satire? Charles Clarke on liberty and security…

A comment piece allegedly by the former UK Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has been posted on The Guardian newspaper’s site. I say ‘allegedly’ because it is hard to believe that a man in his position could write something to monumentally lacking in self-awareness or with less understanding of the issues he is discussing. He talks of a fourth Labour term (which is in itself increasingly a fantasy in which few, even in the Labour Party, believe) in which liberty and security are unified, “to consolidate the new constitutional relationships, establish consensus about the powers of the police and security services and address issues relating to identity”! He talks of CCTV and the DNA database as great advances, with no mention of the slamming of the operation of this database by the European Court of Human Rights and the massive climb-down by the government, or that fact that research commissioned by his own former Home Office Research Department shows that CCTV has little effect on crime. He claims that there is “an understandable public demand for more databases”; this will come as news to most people.He even claims that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) has been a success, ignoring the critical views of the regulators and the last Home Secretary’s promise to review legislation that has been used for all kinds of intrusive and inappropriate surveillance activities by local authorities.

Of course he is right that Labour deserves credit for establishing the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act, and for unifying the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Yet these were all things that were done (or planned) in Labour’s first term and there has been little to celebrate in terms of liberty and security in Labour’s two terms since then, when even the ICO emerged, under former commissioner Richard Thomas, as one of the most trenchant critics of Labour’s activities.

But then right near the end, he suddenly switches to an entirely different line arguing that “The government needs to establish a coherent data regime that places the individual at the centre, with the practical right to see the data held on them and correct it if necessary. They should also be able to see who made any changes to data that is stored (and when the changes were made), and to give permission for the sharing of any data which is held”. The second sentence however misses the point of what the first implies (which in itself suggests that the regime Labour has created is incoherent). A data regime which places the individual at the centre would start not from permissions for sharing, but by asking what data needs to be stored, why, how and by whom. It would be based not a presumption of permission to share but on a request for such sharing with full disclosure of the purposes – that is the meaning of ‘transparency’, a word he uses in the next sentence, but missing from all of this are the words ‘consent’ and ‘accountability’. They are rather too important to be absent by chance.

And of course there is no mention at all of the role Labour has played in the EU and in other international fora, in spreading illiberal security ideas across national borders. The acceptance by the UK of things like the Prum Treaty and the Stockholm program have received almost no comment from British politicians on any part of the political spectrum (except in a general context of anti-EU nationalism, which misses the important issues involved).

All in all, if this is real, which I still can hardly believe, this is an astonishingly brazen and aggressively arrogant piece. It says everything about why, in terms of liberty and security, Labour have already lost the argument and why the country will hand over power at the next election to a bunch of upper-class twits with no coherent policies – in others words, anyone in preference to a party that once claimed that ‘things can only get better’ but has long since stopped even pretending that this is the case…

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

3 thoughts on “Surely this is satire? Charles Clarke on liberty and security…”

  1. Hm. No-one has been a harsher critic of CC’s past database and ID stance, and no-has has watched Eclectech’s notional of a national identity more often of enjoyed it more than me.


    I’ve somehwat moderated my initial highly critical view of his piece here. I now think we have a man working his way through to understanding a VRM-based view of public relationships with government.

    See eg

    If so, we might be about to win a very significant convert. And if so, there’s some prodigal Biblical quote that applies but it slips my mind. GFE.

  2. Well, I hope that you are right and that the change in direction in the article indicates a change of direction in thinking – after all, he wouldn’t be the first (with even David Blunkett now prepared to accept that ID Cards might not be all that they claimed to be) – however, I am not sure. He’s clearly read some of the relationship management stuff and probably taken note of the House of Lords report, but the comment piece seems to indicate that he isn’t quite prepared to apply this thinking to the information relationships that have been established already by Labour (as opposed to notional and rather more abstract future relationships).

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