Is Britain really becoming a police state?

The arrest of shadow immigration spokesman Damian Green has sparked a vigorous debate about our fast-disappearing civil liberties.

The arrest of shadow immigration spokesman Damian Green, for the "terrible crime of doing his job as a parliamentarian", is not merely outrageous, but "insanely stupid", says Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. After all, leaks happen all the time and "fear of exposure by leak" acts as a check on the behaviour of ministers and civil servants. Green's revelation that thousands of illegal immigrants had been given security clearance to work in Whitehall and that one had been employed in Parliament was helping national security by exposing the "sloppiness" of government.

Illicit disclosures such as Green's are the "lifeblood of a free press and a free Parliament", agrees Max Hastings in the Daily Mail. Indeed, says Richard Littlejohn in the same paper. But Green's real crime was to ridicule the Government, which has come to regard any criticism as an act of treason. Green was arrested on suspicion of "conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office" a "risible, catch-all indictment" that "could be levelled at just about any member of the Government any day of the week". Gordon Brown's early career was "built on leaked documents". That's why Green's arrest is the "most terrifying manifestation to date of Labour's Stasi State".

Steady on, says Marcel Berlins in The Guardian. It's rather "scandalous and dishonest" to make such "emotive connections". After all, we still don't know all the facts. Sure, mistakes appear to have been made, but this "hysteria" is excessive. Maybe the police have behaved ham-fistedly; maybe the Speaker should have done more to prevent the search. There are many maybes, but "none that are a fundamental threat to the future of democracy, parliament, the police or the criminal justice system". I agree, says Alice Miles in The Times. A "clod-hoppingly big mistake has been made", but this is "histrionics, not history". Yes, there are questions that should be answered. "Why are the police such idiots?" What did the Serjeant at Arms or the Speaker agree to and why? But ultimately, there are more important things to worry about. People are losing their jobs and their homes.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Wrong, says Janet Daley in The Daily Telegraph. "Short of an outright, totalitarian suspension of democracy this is about as serious as it gets." Indeed, it captures the "seeming politicisation of the police, the brass neck of the home secretary, the degradation of the parliamentary authorities and the confusion in Labour between the role of government and the state", says Henry Porter in The Guardian.

And it's a political gift to the Tories, says Rawnsley. Brown and the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, are pleading ignorance, but they are the bosses of the senior civil servant who "triggered this episode" and police commanders who executed it. Britain isn't a police state, but some people are "beginning to behave as if it were". If Brown and Smith care for their own reputations, or that of their country, they should "get them under control".

Labour's £20bn surveillance society

The Tories are exaggerating when they describe the treatment of Damian Green as 'Stalinesque', says Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer, but few would argue that there has been an erosion of civil liberties under Labour. Britain has more CCTV cameras than any other country and ID cards are on the way. What's more, following the peers' rejection of plans to extend the 28-day detention of terrorists without charge to 42 in October, the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, unveiled proposals to create a vast government database of all internet and phone communications.

Actually, we are already spied on far more than we realise, says Philip Johnston in The Daily Telegraph. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act (Ripa), around 650 public-sector organisations are entitled to keep tabs on who we phone or email not to ascertain whether we are terrorists, but to "stake out the homes of parents trying to get their children into a decent school".

Such databases also pose a security risk, says former shadow home secretary David Davis in The Guardian. Even if civil servants learn to stop leaving their laptops on trains, these databases will become a "honey pot" for every hacker, fraudster, criminal or terrorist around.

The national DNA database statistics are equally disturbing, says Christopher Hope in The Daily Telegraph. The number of DNA profiles on the database stood at 4.1 million by the end of March according to the National Policing Improvement Agency. That's equivalent to over 5% of the population; the US database holds just 0.5%. Of those 4.1 million, 3.25 million had a conviction, caution or formal warning, so more than 730,000 people were innocent of any offence.

Then there's the cost. In July, a report by the TaxPayers' Alliance put the cost of this "surveillance society" at £20bn, or around £800 per household, and includes £19bn for the planned ID card system and £500m spent on CCTV cameras.

Emily Hohler

Emily has extensive experience in the world of journalism. She has worked on MoneyWeek for more than 20 years as a former assistant editor and writer. Emily has previously worked on titles including The Times as a Deputy Features Editor, Commissioning Editor at The Independent Sunday Review, The Daily Telegraph, and she spent three years at women's lifestyle magazine Marie Claire as a features writer for three years, early on in her career. 

On MoneyWeek, Emily’s coverage includes Brexit and global markets such as Russia and China. Aside from her writing, Emily is a Nutritional Therapist and she runs her own business called Root Branch Nutrition in Oxfordshire, where she offers consultations and workshops on nutrition and health.