This article first appeared in The Leither magazine
I sometimes get a bit lost finding my way around Westminster – I may have been working there for a couple of years but it's still a really weird place and it's easy to lose your bearings. I got lost one Monday afternoon recently and needed some help. There was, fortunately, a helpful policeman nearby who took me to where I should have been. His name was Keith Palmer and two days later he was murdered while he was doing his job – a man drove a car along the pavement of Westminster Bridge, apparently at speeds of nearly 80MPH, killing and injuring people who were just going about their day, before he attacked those guarding the entrance to the Houses of Parliament. PC Keith Palmer was stabbed to death.
When danger threatened and most people were running away police officers were putting themselves in the way of danger. They weren't the only ones – medics were doing the same; running to help the injured even though there was no way of telling what was going on at the time. It's very humbling and it gives you a different perspective on unfolding events. MPs were safe all the time, by the way, we were never in danger, thanks to the actions of others – we heard gunshots and sirens but we saw hardly anything, with the notable exception of Tory MP Tobias Elwood who happened to be near the gate and tried to save the police officer's life.
When everything quietened down arrests were made and the tall tales started, along with the claims and the rumours and the speculation and the wild-eyed claims about what we have to do to stop it happening again. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was fairly quick out of the blocks demanding that encrypted messaging ends because the attacker got a WhatsApp message shortly before the attack.
She said that apps shouldn't "provide a secret place" and that governments should be able to access those messages. She said it was "absurd to have a situation where you can have terrorists talking to each other on a formal platform... and it can't be accessed". It sounds reasonable at first but none of the security services thought that Khalid Masood was a threat (he'd been looked at in the past but was no longer being watched) so no-one was taking an interest what he said, wrote, texted, WhatsApp'd or sang from the rooftops.
There's a difficulty whenever a politician starts sounding reasonable about having access to people's private data – what seems like a reasonable measure in a frightening situation or its aftermath isn't going to be lifted when things are calmer because 'you never know!' If we're giving up some of our liberties for a pinch of security we're losing both; you can't say "I'm going to give up my right to keep the government out of my life but only in specific circumstances."
I find myself humming along with Leith's bard, Dick Gaughan, as he sings that he will dance to Tom Paine's bones, "dance in the oldest boots I own to the rhythm of Tom Paine's bones". Our civil liberties and individual rights have to be zealously protected if they are to be protected at all, trading off one or two pieces here and there for what someone else tells us is our own best interests is how we lose it all.
Amber Rudd and her minions already have the power to intercept our communications if she can make a case in front of a judge but she wants us to accept that it should be fine to poke a neb in whenever some spook feels like it. If we don't protect the civil liberties and human rights of those who attack us then we don't protect the civil liberties and human rights of those who are on our side – including ourselves. Government is a useful thing sometimes but we shouldn't let it get out of hand.
So next time a politician suggests that they need to access someone else's phones and letters and emails and messages feel free to remind them that it's not just the communications they're invading but the rights of you and your friends, family, neighbours and enemies too. Tell them it's your liberty they're after and invite them, gently, to rethink their position. When they've gone you can get out the oldest boots you own and dance to Tom Paine's bones.
Dick Gaughan was ill last year; I haven't heard how he is or seen anything about how he's doing but I hope he's recovering and might be back with the guitar soon, we need voices like his reminding politicians where the limits are.
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