Anthony Sacramone, working from a New York Times report, is tolerably severe about the rise of domestic surveillance in Britain. As always, the Times is late to the party. The House of Lords Constitution Committee issued a lengthy report on this subject in January, following on five years of discussion about the rise of the “surveillance society” in Britain. The committee’s report opened:
Surveillance is an inescapable part of life in the UK. Every time we make a telephone call, send an email, browse the internet, or even walk down our local high street, our actions may be monitored and recorded. To respond to crime, combat the threat of terrorism, and improve administrative efficiency, successive UK governments have gradually constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world. At the same time, similar developments in the private sector have contributed to a profound change in the character of life in this country. The development of electronic surveillance and the collection and processing of personal information have become pervasive, routine, and almost taken for granted. Many of these surveillance practices are unknown to most people, and their potential consequences are not fully appreciated.
The broader connections of all this are worth pausing over. It is easy to say that all the domestic surveillance in the UK stems from concern — in many cases, justified concern — over terrorism. But as the Times, the Lords, and many other authorities have pointed out, most of it is related to commonplace offenses, such as this undercover campaign against “dog fouling” — i.e. dogs making messes on sidewalks — that barely rise to the level of being an offense. In a society where the state has assumed responsibility for preventing all bad things from happening — for that is the promise of the tender embrace of the social welfare state — there is no principled way to object to it all. It is a case of “we know best.”
And that brings me back to the ongoing scandal about Britain’s broader controls or lack thereof. The guiding theme of this scandal is the same: the political elite doing good unto the voters, whether they wish it or not. The latest story to emerge on this front is that the internal report that made the case for Britain’s covert embrace of mass migration was deliberately doctored to “remove details of [immigration’s] possible links to organised crime, street fights and begging.” Of course, there is plenty of domestic criminality in Britain too. But a policy of open borders is a temptation that many ill-doers would find hard to resist.
That’s one more reason it’s a bad policy: if you don’t control your borders, you have to clamp down even harder domestically. The House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs accepted this point when it stated in 2006 that “the focus can no longer remain so heavily weighted towards initial entry and border control. … Far greater effort will in future have to go into the enforcement of the Immigration Rules within the UK.” Of course, the border controls at the time were actually, and intentionally, quite weak. But to all the other reasons for which Labour liked that, add one more: it justified even more domestic surveillance.