Tiptoeing to Tyranny

“True, liberal transparency is asymmetrical. As a citizen, I should know everything my government is doing on my behalf, and it should know nothing — beyond those things we have as citizens agreed to share with it — about what I am doing. Public means public, open and transparent, and private means as private as anyone wants to be. In a tyranny, it’s the other way round. The government is secret and private lives are open to government scrutiny.”

I said that. A few posts ago; and it’s still what I mean.

That’s why I admire Edward Snowden’s courage and applaud his flight.

It doesn’t matter that the places he’s fleeing through and towards – China, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela – are all at different stages along the continuum between tyranny and a transparent liberal democracy.  Hypocrisy is an easy accusation to make, but is not germane. Snowden, (and Manning), are living martyrs: they are playing  in the history of the struggle for transparency, the role slain martyrs have  played in other  struggles for faith, freedom and conviction.  (Assange, one feels, is pursuing martyrdom for its own sake, but now looks like a rather tawdry prophet. He is in danger of doing for the movement what those TV pastors who get caught with their pants down did for televangelism).

The essence of history is to understand the struggle for liberty from tyranny. The course of English History that Mr Gove wants to form the spine of the history curriculum is about that struggle.  From the brutal rule of absolute monarchs, gaining concessions through Magna Carta, the reformation, the Civil War, the revolution of 1688, the Napoleonic wars, the abolition of slavery, the Great Reform Act, universal suffrage, the twentieth century’s hot and cold wars against Teutonic imperialism, fascism and Soviet tyranny,  the lesson of history always is: do not trust the people in power – whatever colour flag they are carrying. Acton summarised it in less than a Tweet.

In letting technology take over, in allowing the activities of GCHQ and the NSA, we are tiptoeing towards tyranny. Transparency is our best weapon against that tyranny; unless we know what our rulers are doing in our name, we cannot exercise our democratic duty. Public knowledge of their practices lessens their potency, which is why they wanted to keep it secret. We now know all about the code-breakers of Bletchley Park, but at the time their very existence was kept secret because had the enemy known what we were doing the flow of life-saving information would have dried up. Many lives were sacrificed through the use of misinformation to conceal our tenuous grasp on the Enigma code.  But times are different now, and we are living in powerful peacetime democracies. The rules that applied during the war can no longer apply, our servants in government must play by tougher ones.

We understand that the people that GCHQ and the NSA target do not share our aspirations of liberty. We applaud the intelligence services’ success in tracking down and preventing attacks on us, and because we know that there are many people who would move us backwards, to different tyrannies, we are willing to give them some latitude, to allow them to snoop a little – even, sometimes, to snoop on us. But it cannot be absolute latitude.



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