The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, made a speech this morning at RUSI, the main military-focused think tank in the UK. That’s the same Foreign Secretary who when at the Ministry of Defense decided to can one fifth of the army, speaking at the same think tank that put out a report yesterday saying Hammond’s government will cut about 43,000 more soldiers – from an army of less than 100,000 – if it’s re-elected. That’s the Foreign Secretary presiding over an FCO whose Russia experts have been let go and scattered to the four winds of oil companies, think tanks and academia, because God knows the UK doesn’t need that kind of expertise. That’s the same Foreign Secretary who can barely spell Brussels, let alone bear to go there, and who is quite satisfied leading the foreign service of a country that increasingly distrusts and fears all things foreign. That one.
Hammond’s speech is easy to summarise: Russia is very mean and bad; ok fair enough, we didn’t foresee ISIS; but if only people would stop all this pointless bleating about the security services’ oversight and transparency, we could get on with our job of protecting the people of Britain. How strong. How plausible. How brave.
It’s only at the level of detail, or rather its self-serving and specious claims, that Hammond’s speech breaks down.
What Hammond says: ‘We said we would legislate to ensure that cases involving national security information could be heard fairly, fully and safely in our courts. And we did.’
What the government did: further entrenched secret courts and a parallel justice system where evidence against individuals cannot be seen by them or their lawyers, destroying the principle and practice of fair trial.
What Hammond says: ‘We said we would strengthen independent and parliamentary scrutiny of the agencies. And we have by making the Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory committee of Parliament.’
What the government did: Make Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory committee. Whoopee. Anyone who thinks the ISC provides effective oversight should watch some video of its fawning audiences security service leaders or examine the politicised timeline and gutless redactions of its report on the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby. Failing that, examine the record of career securocrat Malcolm Rifkind, its Chair who just resigned for peddling access to the Chinese.
What Hammond says: ‘The clandestine nature of some of the threats that are launched against us; the weapons systems that are developed in secrecy to threaten our national security; the illegal proliferation of military technology; the growing challenge we face in cyber space; the threat of international organised crime; and the great lengths that individual terrorists or terrorist organisations go to in order to try and keep their plots from being uncovered all of these require that we maintain a highly effective, secret capability to identify, monitor and act against these threats before they can do us harm.’
What the government did: Back-doored every device and mobile phone it could and tried its best to break encryption for everyone. Because the real bad guys will never exploit those vulnerabilities.
What Hammond says: ‘We are now faced with a Russian leader bent not on joining the international rules-based system which keeps the peace between nations, but on subverting it. President Putin’s actions – illegally annexing Crimea and using Russian troops to destabilise eastern Ukraine – fundamentally undermine the security of the sovereign nations of Eastern Europe.’
What the government did: Led a 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review that was anything but strategic, and simply a budget-cutting slash and burn of people, weapons and capability. Repeatedly cut defense-spending in real terms, to the point where it will not now meet its NATO commitments and the UK is goaded in public by its closest military ally. Presided over the continued exodus of expertise and massive cost-cutting to the core of its foreign service, to the point where there literally weren’t enough people to translate and analyse realtime information about Crimea’s invasion. Withdrew so utterly from EU day-to-day business and strategic engagement that Prime Minister Cameron was a barely tolerated tag-along at Merkel and Hollande’s summit on Russia. Blocked and harried for years all attempts to convene a full and independent inquiry into the London murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Made London the safest and most welcoming place for all the dirty money you can pile up in a Chelsea flat.
But despite the Conservative government’s utter failure to pursue any meaningful foreign policy or maintain the UK’s ability to analyse its environment and respond in force to real threats, the Foreign Secretary’s priority is this:
‘The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and I are determined that we should draw a line under the debate (MF: on transparency and oversight of the intelligence agencies) by legislating early in the next Parliament to give our agencies, clearly and transparently, the powers they need, and to ensure that our oversight regime keeps pace with technological change and addresses the reasonable concerns of our citizens.’
The ‘debate’ – yes, the one the government has tried to shut down and shoot down every step of the way – is to be concluded for good so that Hammond, Cameron and co. can get on with chipping away at the last few blocks of democracy.
No acknowledgement of the catastrophic failure of the government’s foreign policy. No acknowledgement of the willful destruction of the capacity of our armed forces. And certainly no good faith grappling with the arguments of those who are looking further than the next election cycle:
‘There are some who remain willfully blind to the distinction between the unacknowledged, unregulated, underhand intelligence capabilities of a repressive regime, directed against its own people, and the agencies of this and other democratic countries, where intelligence is directed towards keeping our citizens safe and is subject to the most robust systems of oversight.’
Or, if I may paraphrase, ‘how can you possibly confuse us with bad regimes, and why don’t you trust us when we say – despite history, evidence, repetition and any basic knowledge of the human condition – that we do not misuse these powers against our own people?’.
Corey wrote yesterday about Viola Liuzzo, a working class white woman murdered by a racist thug – and FBI informer – for her involvement in the US civil rights movement. The truly shameful part of Viola’s story is how she was posthumously slandered and smeared by FBI chief J.Edgar Hoover, and her children made to suffer in shame for most of their lives.
Viola’s story is heart-breaking, but it is not exceptional.
Doreen Lawrence, trailed and surveiled by London’s Metropolitan police looking to smear her as she fought to secure a murder conviction of her son’s racist killers, is also not exceptional, in any way other than her almost superhuman courage, persistence and forbearance.
States misuse power. The sun rises and sets. Oversight by the same tiny clique of friends is oversight in name only. The bad things did not all happen a long time ago. And Russia will always, always be a threat.
Those who question and seek to limit state power and hold it to public account are the very opposite of naive. They are the realists, the true Burkean conservatives who want the least harm done by those with the most power.
We are not ‘willfully blind’ to the difference between repressive regimes and free ones, so much as painfully seeing that Western, democratic states show different faces to different people, and some of those faces are very ugly indeed.