“Why do the Brits accept surveillance” asks Jonathan Freedland in the New York Times? Freedland points out that, even after the Edward Snowden revelations, only 19% of British people think that the security services have too much power. By contrast, some 64% think they have the right amount of power or too little. Freedland’s explanation for this striking state of affairs is that the Brits have a more deferential attitude to the state than Americans, reflected in the fact that it is “Her Majesty’s government”. He points out that “Britons remain subjects not citizens.”
This is a clever explanation, but not one that I find particularly convincing. It is true that the British tend to be less hostile to the idea of government than Americans. But that is an attitude that is common in Europe, including in states that are highly suspicious of intelligence agencies, such as Germany.
My alternative theory is that British people basically accept the claim that was made by Britain’s intelligence chiefs when they testified before Parliament last week. The spooks argued that they are working to protect democracy. That claim, which would be met with derision in Germany or by much of liberal America, is broadly accepted in Britain, for reasons that are deeply rooted in British history.
The basic narrative of British history, as taught in schools and broadcast on television, is of a country that has had to ward off a succession of attempted foreign invasions. The role of the intelligence services in protecting the UK is both noted and celebrated. Most obviously, in the second world war, the code-breakers of Bletchley Park – who cracked the German Enigma signals – are regarded as national heroes. But it goes back a lot further than that. Elizabeth I’s spy-master, Francis Walsingham, ran an extensive network of spies that gathered vital intelligence on the Spanish Armada.
British spies were active during the Napoleonic wars and the feats of intelligence agents in the war against Hitler’s Germany, continue to be celebrated – for example in the wildly popular books of the historian, Ben Macintyre. Films and literature about post-war Britain continue to be pre-occupied by the role of spies – whether it is the novels of John Le Carre or the James Bond films. Even real-life spies who turned out to be traitors – like Kim Philby and Guy Burgess – remain a subject of fascination.
Britain, in the neat phrase of my colleague, Martin Wolf, has long been a “warfare state” – mobilised to protect British freedom (the “free-born Englishman”, celebrated long before the establishment of a full democracy) from foreign invasion. Most British citizens accept and, indeed, celebrate the role of the state in keeping the country free and independent – and the role of the intelligence services has historically been integral to that task. The threat from terrorism, as witnessed in the London bombings of 2005, has only increased the awareness of the need for good intelligence. Everybody knows that there is no military solution to the “war on terror”. Effective intelligence services is the best hope we have.
Of course, most people are also well aware that the spooks might over-step the mark, from time to time. But, as the poll cited by Freedland suggest, only a small minority of Brits seem to feel that the powers of the intelligence services are excessive. And, after months of Snowden revelations, this can no longer be put down to ignorance.
The acceptance of the role of spying in the protection of democracy seems to me to be the real answer to Freedland’s question – “Why do the Brits accept surveillance?” By contrast, his theory that it is all to do with the British being subjects not citizens strikes me as unconvincing. Technically, this may be true. But I don’t think that many British people are aware of the distinction between citizens and subjects, or would regard it as particularly meaningful – if it was explained to them. The fact is that the monarchy has not actually been particularly powerful in Britain for a couple of centuries – and Britain is a law-governed state, even if there is no formal constitution on the American model.
Most British people know that they live in a free country. And the majority think that the intelligence services protect that freedom, rather than constraining it. This belief may baffle American journalists, based in faraway Brazil, like Glenn Greenwald – but it has survived the Snowden revelations.