Public Affairs

Trade Union Desk

Liberty for me, surveillance for thee

One of the most striking things one learns from reading Peter Geoghegan’s ‘Democracy for Sale’ is how discreet are the architects of Brexit Britain, who presently populate the great ministries of state under Prime Minister Alexander Johnson, writes the ICTU’s John O’Farrell.

‘Discreet’ is a kind expression. Alternatives could include ‘shadowy’, or ‘shady’, or ‘watchful’, or ‘exclusive’. What is very clear about the UK’s power elite is how their avowed support for liberty and freedom is in marked contrast to what we know about their world: Who funds their think-tanks?; From where those donors extracted their wealth?; How do they decide priorities for policy?; What are they keeping from Westminster’s scrutiny committees?; Who benefits from the enormous largesse of public procurement?

When Dominic Cummings sat in the garden of Number 10 Downing Street and deigned to answer some questions from a line of supplicant lobby journalists, the question which he was not asked, let alone forced to answer, was this: If what he did in apparent contradiction to government guidelines was perfectly fine and above board, then why did his press officer Lee Cain stonewall questions from the Mirror and Guardian for six weeks before the story broke, and why did they then attempt to deflect the veracity of the reports by smearing those hacks as bitter remainers?

Old-fashioned authoritarian politicians used to reply to critics of our addiction to CCTV and the Chinese levels of surveillance in our increasingly privatised ‘public spaces’ with the implicit accusation of ‘if you are doing nothing wrong, then you have nothing to fear’. As our PM might stammer, ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’

When negotiations began for the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement in 2017, “British politicians remain stubbornly wedded to the idea that there will be ‘no running commentary”, observed the Institute for Government. In contrast, “the European Council published its ‘transparency regime’ for the Brexit negotiations, committing the EU to a far greater degree of transparency than anything that we have seen in the UK”.

Since we ‘Took Back Control’ on 31 January, the UK side of negotiations resumed the cloak of discretion, part of a consistent pattern of ‘secrecy as statecraft’, whose highlight was the usurping of the UK’s unwritten constitution in late 2019, the de-facto suspension of Parliament which was eventually overturned by every sitting judge on the Supreme Court bench. Even the Queen was lied to about the proroguing by her most gracious servant, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

He ‘misled’ the monarch, and when asked by one of our best hacks, Antony Barnett, about the estimated £7 million he earned through his stake in Somerset Capital Management since the referendum, he icily replied that “the amount that I received is not for public disclosure. I’m entitled to the same privacy in my affairs as anyone else in parliament is”.

There is so much we do not and cannot know about the people and institutions altering our lives. The pandemic has been a boom time for public procurement for all kinds of services, and the apparent urgency has meant that, unfortunately, there has been little time for the ideal procurement processes for outsourcing, such as open advertisement, and seeking bids from at least three competitors to ensure that public money is protected from incompetence or cronyism. Qui bono?

Ministers are changing how we find out what they’re up to. Trade Secretary Liz Truss held three meetings in the spring with the secretly-funded Institute for Economic Affairs, and then ‘revised’ the meetings as ‘personal’, rather than ‘discussing trade’ as originally described in the Government’s own quarterly transparency data.

Which brings us to the chaos over A-level results. A weird obsession for Tory ideologues in recent years has been ‘grade inflation’, and naturally, when outsourcing a method to grade Sixth-Form students, they asked “those creating the algorithm to protect the ‘integrity of the qualification’ by aligning results with exam centre performance over the previous three years.” Inevitably, ministers had to admit that they did not understand the algorithm, but that only reinforced that they were not to blame for the consequences.

The same ministers and the same advisors are in the process of the most radical realignment of our lives in hundreds of ways as we leave the ‘sclerotic’ regulatory space of the EU, and much else in the international architecture of globalisation. What can possibly go wrong? Will we find out?

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