UK General Election: Security means nothing without freedom

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A man types on a computer keyboard in front of the displayed cyber code in this illustration picture taken 1 March 2017 © REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration/File Photo

Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t just put UK citizens at risk, but actively undermines the tools that maintain and expand our rights as citizens, writes Tom King.

I wish we could return to the early days of this general election. It began in an atmosphere of high farce as Theresa May stuck rigidly to her ‘strong and stable’ script. The robotic mantra rang increasingly desperate as the polls tightened and people began to realize she had all the empathy of a stale biscuit dunked into gone-off milk.

But that slogan became bitterly ironic as terrorism has returned to the streets of England’s great cities. The loss of life is a tragedy beyond words. And the timing is surely deliberate: these attacks, beyond targeting popular entertainment and nightlife, are trying to close off what has become known, inaccurately, as the ‘grey zone’. They are trying to turn our colourful world black and white.

That grey zone, of course, is where representative democracy itself resides. It’s a more appropriate term for the umming and ahh-ing of Westminster politics: a place inhabited by far too many grey men and women and thus a place that fails to represent much of the UK’s vibrancy.

It’s a deeply flawed system – almost beyond repair, like the literally crumbling Palace of Westminster itself – but it’s all we have to reassert our political freedom at a time like this.

We seem to have learnt to push back against the intentions of terrorists to disrupt our way of life. The One Love Manchester concert, staged less than two weeks after that attack, showed people’s glorious, defiant joy as they restated their common humanity.

What we now need to learn as a society is to resist attempts by governments to disrupt our way of life in the wake of such disasters. May’s response to the latest tragedy was not a strong and stable defence of our values, but a craven capitulation.

Both the prime minister and her mini-me home secretary Amber Rudd have been all over the airwaves arguing that what we really need to do is to ‘regulate the internet’. Their central thesis is that the combination of a global information network and the ‘safe spaces’ created by encrypted communication is behind the recent attacks.

The way May spoke about this at the weekend made it sound like a fresh new idea in the fight against fear. But it’s actually as old as the hills in political terms. David Cameron began banging the drum for government ‘back-door access’ to end-to-end encryption after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015. And ever since, the Tories have returned to the idea, like a dog to its vomit. Amber Rudd famously described needing experts with access to ‘necessary hashtags’ after the Westminster attack in March.

The policy manages to combine authoritarianism with incompetence and mathematical illiteracy. Unsurprisingly, much of the criticism around it has centred on just how unworkable it would be to implement it. But we must not miss the tide that these waves of draconian idiocy are being carried on.

That tide is a wider focus on mass surveillance that ignores both the realities of recent terrorist attacks and the values on which our democracy and our society rest.

Firstly, the consistent theme of major Western attacks has been that the attackers were already known to authorities. In the London Bridge case, one of them had even appeared in a TV documentary on radicalisation. Human intelligence had also already identified perpetrators of the incidents in Boston, in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan, and the murderers of Lee Rigby.

Yet instead of promising to give more resources to cash-strapped police forces and the intelligence services, May doubled down on nebulous new ‘powers’, even though there has seemingly been new terrorism-related legislation in Parliament roughly every three minutes this century.

In doing so consistently throughout her career in government, she spits on the values that protect us best from terror. And she doesn’t just put UK citizens at risk from less secure communication and reduced privacy. She contributes to active attempts around the world to take away some of the most powerful tools we have to maintain and expand our rights as citizens.

Without end-to-end encryption, investigative journalism and wider civil society organizations focused on accountability are sitting ducks for attacks in the digital sphere. Apps that use such technology are vital in protecting sources and internal communications. If recent political campaigns had been using encrypted email, it would not have mattered that they had been successfully phished, as the content of the emails themselves would have remained unknown.

Perhaps I am being too charitable in assuming that Theresa May, Home Secretary for six years, understands this. On one hand, if she does, she is deliberately advocating a policy she knows will make our society less secure and more weak. On the other hand, if she doesn’t, she is so incompetent that basic concepts of security, freedom and technology are beyond her.

Either way, it’s clear we should be afraid of her.

Tom King is Head of Partnerships at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Marching for ‘Free education’

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Students marching for a free education bill, in London, 19 November 2014. © Tom King

On 19 November, as many as 8,000 students from across Britain gathered on Malet Street in Bloomsbury, London, to join a noisy march to Parliament Square demanding an end to tuition fees.

The ‘Free Education’ demonstration marks an upturn in student activity ahead of the general election next year, and follows the waves of protests in 2010 and 2011, triggered by the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000 ($14,000) a year.

Now, students are not seeking to prevent any future fee hikes, but to do away with the regime of fees, loans and debt altogether. Put simply, says Beth Redmond, one of the demo’s organizers, the current system is ‘bullshit’.

For the first time in a decade, the National Union of Students (NUS) agrees. Until its spring conference, the union had pushed a ‘graduate tax’ as a replacement for tuition fees, but this year, delegates opted instead to campaign for higher education to be funded through general taxation.

The current fees policy has created an enormous black hole in government budgets, as students are increasingly unable to pay back their mortgage-sized debts. An argument based on balancing the books might appeal to austerity-minded politicians, but there are far more pressing reasons to scrap tuition fees.

A degree price-tag exceeding the annual household of many working-class teenagers makes the prospect of getting a university education unappealing at best, and unimaginable for others. At the same time, meagre maintenance grants mean that those who do make it live in poverty.

The pressure of debt focuses students’ minds on ‘CV building’ rather than academic enrichment. Fees are just the first step in transforming educational institutions into businesses with customers, rather than students, in a system that is marketized and market-focused.

‘Not only is a publicly funded education system achievable, it’s also necessary,’ says Megan Dunn, NUS Vice-President of Higher Education.

‘Forcing debt onto students as a way of funding universities is an experiment that has failed not just students, but our country. Politicians need to recognize that we will only achieve a sustainable higher-education funding system if we abandon the discredited regime of sky-high fees and debts altogether.’

However, to the disappointment of organizers, NUS pulled its support for the protest at the beginning of the month, saying that the march would pose an ‘unacceptable level of risk to our members’.

In hindsight, the national union’s position now looks cautious in the extreme. Compared to the police violence seen in the autumn of 2010, the scuffles this time were mild and barely a handful of people were arrested.

Students at the demonstration carried banners mocking the NUS’s perceived timidity and Redmond said students’ anger was understandable.

‘NUS efforts to undermine us is pushing them further into irrelevance. The small number of injuries came from the Met[ropolitan] Police themselves, which is what the organizers predicted originally,’ she said.

The march took students from the cluster of university campuses in Bloomsbury, through central London, passing surprised tourists at Trafalgar Square. As the procession rounded on Whitehall, with Parliament now in sight, the crowd erupted into chants of ‘Tory scum, here we come!’

Passing the gates of Downing Street, demonstrators hissed and booed, and the shout ‘David Cameron, fuck you! We deserve a future too!’ blared from megaphones.

Somewhere amid the ‘black bloc’ of masked, balaclava-wearing anarchists, a red smoke bomb was let off and minutes later a small group had charged at the barriers fencing off the green at the centre of Parliament Square and torn them down.

A throng of people flooded in, dancing and chanting with a samba band, while the remaining demonstrators marched on to the rally, as planned. As student activists and politicians addressed the assembled crowd, a few dozen broke away to converge on the offices of the Department for Business, Industry and Skills, which is responsible for universities, and paint was thrown at its glass façade.

It was among this minority of breakaways that arrests took place in running scuffles with the police.

Ignoring NUS warnings, coach-loads of students had come to London, some having travelled overnight, to join the march. Rory, a student at Aberdeen University, had made an 11-hour journey, despite already receiving free education funded by the Scottish government.

‘Despite the fact that I don’t pay tuition fees, I wanted to show my solidarity with all those students who do,’ he said. ‘I know how brilliant free education in Scotland is and how successful it’s been... the idea that no-one should pay tuition for higher education does work.’

‘Tuition fees are a barrier to education and have stopped me from applying to any English universities. We need to oppose them because they create capitalist workers who become obsessed with how much money they make,’ he continued.

The march was just the start of the action planned in the fight to abolish tuition fees. ‘The sheer numbers and the energy we saw from students all over the country on today’s march was just incredible, and we need to keep channelling that energy into a movement,’ said Redmond.

Organizers are already busy planning for a ‘day of action’ on 3 December, when students will be encouraged to walk out of classes, hold local protests, and occupy their campuses. It’s clear that a standalone A-to-B procession won’t be enough to change government policy, and that some kind of escalation measure will be necessary.

With less than six months to go until polling day, students seem determined to turn up the heat on politicians, not just to moderate the current fees system, but to look at radically different ways of funding universities.

This week’s demonstration has forced free education onto the agenda and planted it at the heart of the debate on higher-education policy.

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