“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. Read more
A "Chinese Dream" promotion billboard (Getty)
I spent last weekend in Beijing, as part of a group of foreigners, at a small conference dedicated to “Understanding China”. We met a large cross-section of the country’s senior leadership from President Xi Jinping on down. We heard many reiterations of the idea that China is about to pursue “comprehensive reform”. So I would love to be able to say that I have a crystal clear idea of what is likely to emerge from the much-hyped Communist Party plenum that begins in Beijing this weekend. But that would be an overstatement. Most of the Chinese leaders were understandably cagey about exactly what reforms would be necessary to achieve the “Chinese dream” of national greatness and prosperity. A certain pre-plenum caginess had set in. And indeed many of the important arguments have not been settled. That, after all, is the business of the party plenum.
However, most of the key subjects that need to be tackled are already clear and the outlines of decisions are emerging: Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Foreign commentators and local bloggers regularly predict that China is heading for an economic and political crisis. But the country’s leaders are in strikingly confident mood. They believe that China can keep growing at more than 7 per cent a year for at least another decade. That would mean the country’s economy – already the second-largest in the world – would double in size. And, depending on the assumptions you make about US growth and exchange rates, it would probably mean that China becomes the world’s largest economy by 2020.
It is doubtless just an unfortunate coincidence. But the US Treasury’s criticism of German economic policy seems peculiarly crass and ill-timed – given two other recent developments: the revelations about US bugging of the German chancellor’s phone and America’s own debt-ceiling dramas.
The American suggestion that Germany’s persistent current account surplus is a danger to the eurozone and thus to the world economy has the backing of many eminent economists. But it also invites certain rather obvious responses: Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Should political leaders who have promoted or tolerated mass killings be brought to justice? Many in the west would instinctively answer Yes. The idea that leaders can kill their way to power – and not face punishment – seems morally wrong and politically dangerous. In recent years, an apparatus of international justice has been set up to ensure that mass murder can no longer go unpunished – with the International Criminal Court at its apex.
If the Americans really have been tapping Angela Merkel’s phone, perhaps they can pass some political tips onto the White House. For Barack Obama, in common with most other western leaders, would dearly love to learn the secret of the German chancellor’s success.
Just consider some comparative approval ratings. Mr Obama currently hovers somewhere in the mid-40s. In Britain, David Cameron hit 37% after a successful party conference and has almost certainly sunk back a little after a bad week, in which he was bested over high energy costs by Labour’s Ed Miliband. Meanwhile, bringing up the rear is Francois Hollande, whose approval rating in France is down at a pathetic 23%. By contrast, the German chancellor has a personal approval rating of around 70%. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
America’s debt-ceiling crisis achieved something quite remarkable. It made the EU look well governed by comparison. Both the EU and the US systems are weighed down with checks and balances that make it hard to get things done. But Europe currently has one thing going for it that America lacks. All the most important decision makers in Brussels are committed to making the system work. There are no Tea Party types who regard compromise as a betrayal.
Prospects of a deal over the Iranian nuclear programme
After the most productive talks on Iran’s nuclear programme in years in Geneva this week, Gideon Rachman is joined by defence and diplomatic editor James Blitz and Najmeh Bozorgmehr, Tehran correspondent, to examine what was discussed by the diplomats and how a potential deal might look.
“Journalist changes jobs” is not usually the kind of headline that merits much attention. But the news that Glenn Greenwald is moving from The Guardian to a new media venture, funded by a Hawaii-based billionaire with libertarian views, is something that the British and American governments have reason to worry about.
Greenwald is the reporter who has acted as the conduit for Edward Snowden’s leaks about the US National Security Agency. Most of the NSA stories have been published by The Guardian – with the New York Times also publishing a fair amount that the Guardian has shared with it. However, as Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, pointed out recently on the BBC’s Newsnight programme, the Times has actually chosen not to publish some of the Snowden cache, on grounds of national security. As Abramson explained – “Quite a bit has not yet been published… Responsible journalists care, as citizens do, about national security.” The Guardian has also considered national security in choosing what to publish. However, it seems quite likely that Greenwald will be rather less constrained in his use of the Snowden material when he gets going on his new venture. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
A few years ago Wired, the technology magazine, ran a regular feature called “Japanese schoolgirl watch”. The concept was not as dubious as it sounds. The idea was simply that the schoolgirls of Japan are technological trendsetters and that the gadgets they adopt today will go global tomorrow.