Published in The Huffington Post UK, 2 October 2012
Only in the mad world of modern British politics could it be possible to connect MPs, drones and royal breasts. Is this sounding a little too bizarre? Let me explain….
Way back in 2008 Conservative MP Damien Green, who was at the time the Shadow Minister for Immigration, was arrested on suspicion of eliciting leaks from a Home Office civil servant that appeared to confirm the then Labour government was covering up UK immigration figures.
When I say arrested, this was not the standard, civilised and pre-arranged appointment at the local nick, which the police traditionally allow their political “masters” or, for that matter, their buddies at News International.
Oh no, this was a full-on, Cold War-style arrest, carried out by the Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism command (known in the old days as Special Branch). Intriguingly, civil servants appeared to have misleadingly hyped up the need for a heavy-handed police response by stating that they were “in no doubt that there has been considerable damage to national security already as a result of some of these leaks“.
And indeed, the resulting arrests bore all the hall-marks of a national security case: secret police, dawn raids, and counter-terrorism style searches of the family home, the constituency office, and – shock – an invasion of Green’s office in parliament.
Yet Green was not arrested under the terms of the Official Secrets Act. Instead, both he and his hapless whistleblower, Christopher Galley, were only seized on suspicion of breaching some arcane Victorian law (“aiding and abetting misconduct in public office”). I suppose arresting a sitting MP for a breach of the OSA would have been just too politically tricky.
Leaving aside the understandable upset caused to Green’s wife and children by the raid on their home, plus the fact that the police violated not only their personal effects such as bed sheets and love letters but also confidential legal papers about child abuse cases that Mrs Green was working on, what really caused outrage in the media and political classes was the fact that Plod had dared to invade the hallowed ground of parliament.
There was an outcry from politicians about the “encroaching police state”. The case was duly dropped, the senior officer, Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, had to resign (but only after committing yet another political gaffe), and other stories, such as the MP expenses scandal, grabbed the attention of the mainstream media.
Roll on four years, and Damien Green has now ascended to the giddy heights of Home Office Minister of State for Police and Criminal Justice. Well, meeting his new staff must have been an interesting experience for him.
But what is this man now doing in his eminent role, to stop the slide into the encroaching police state that is the UK? Of all people, one would expect him to be sensitive to such issues.
Sadly, he appears to have already gone native on the job. It was reported yesterday that he is proposing the use of police drones to spy on the UK population, but in an “appropriate and proportionate” manner of course.
The concept of small aerial drones being used by UK police has been mooted for a few years now – indeed some police forces and security agencies have already bought them. But whereas the initial, standard justification was that it would help in the “war on terror” (as it has so ably done in the Middle East, where innocent families are routinely slaughtered in the name of assassinating militants), mission-creep has already set in. Damien Green stated at the launch of the new National Police Air Service (NPAS) that drones could be useful monitoring protests and traffic violations. It has even been reported that the Home Office plans to use non-lethal weapons to do so.
Of course there are problems around the use of drones in UK airspace. Our skies are already very crowded and they could present a hazard to aircraft, although the BBC has reported that drones could be airborne in the next few years. This appears to be the only argument holding the use of drones in check – forget about civil liberties and privacy issues.
This is particularly pertinent as we look at the evolution of drone technology. Currently the UK police are discussing toy-sized drones, but it has already been reported that drones the size of birds or even insects, with autonomous intelligence or swarm capabilities are being developed. And don’t even get me started on the subject of potential militarisation….
There is a whole debate to be had about what can be viewed and what cannot – where does the public sphere end and the private begin? A couple of years ago I suggested somewhat facetiously that our best hope of defeating the introduction of surveillance drones in the UK might be indignant celebs suing the paparazzi for using the technologies. But perhaps the ante has already been upped in the recent fall-out from the Duchess of Cambridge and her royally papped breasts.
If drone technology becomes widespread, then nobody will have any privacy anywhere. But who knows, before we get to that stage perhaps HM Queen will come out swinging on the side of privacy for her granddaughter-in-law, if not for the rest of her “subjects”. If that were to happen then no doubt Damien Green will abandon his new-found enthusiasm for these airborne surveillance pests; if not to stop the “encroaching police state” of which he must have such colourful recollections, then at least to safeguard any potential knighthood in his rosy ministerial future.