UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, is adamant to let us in on the secret of all secrets. None of us know it and even if we did, we were deceiving ourselves. “There is no programme of mass surveillance and there is no surveillance state.” These remarks came at an address by the Home Secretary at the Lord Mayor’s Defence and Security Lecture at Mansion House, in London.

The position of the Cameron Government has never been one of admitting fault for the intelligence practices being conducted by the signals outfit GCHQ and its affiliate agencies. US President Barack Obama did, at least, acknowledge the problem of the National Security Agency (NSA) instituting a range of mechanisms reviewing the culture of the intelligence community, and even proposed reforms against warrantless surveillance. The reform battle in the US, while not satisfactory for privacy advocates, is certainly of a more vigorous nature than it is in the UK.

Listening to May, who denies that the British intelligence services engage in that unsavoury business of hacking, one is tempted to think that Edward Snowden’s revelations were just another blimp on the policy map, an inconspicuous prod against acceptable conduct. His disclosures about mass surveillance programs, apart from making him liable to be punished, were greeted with an exaggerated shrug by the Oxbridge clubbers in the halls of signals intelligence. What was that silly lad on about anyway, telling all of us what we already knew?

“Some people,” according to May, “have alleged that GCHQ is exploiting a technical loophole in legislation that allows them to intercept external communications – that is, communications sent or received outside the UK – at will and without authorisation…. This is… nonsense.”[1] Furthermore, the very idea of an “over-mighty state” beyond the control of law is exaggerated. The problem is that “the state is finding it harder to fulfil its most basic duty, which is to protect the public.” Idealism and paternalism lock horns in the battle over liberty and security.

The usual argument on May’s part is being made about modicum, proportionality, decency. We would rather not do it, but when we do, we keep things clean, are mindful of limits, and stick to the letter of the law however obtuse it might be. Nor, according to May, is Britain urging other powers to conduct unlawful activities for its benefit in the realm of surveillance. No cutting corners, no outsourcing. Pretty decent, really.

May’s spectacularly ill-informed remarks were made notwithstanding the observations by Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, that CGHQ can legally snoop on the use by British citizens of social media platforms − Facebook, Google, and web-based mail – without warrant because of their location outside the UK. Privacy International, which has brought a complaint to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, sees the modern surveillance state as the awful, if more subtle extension, of search and seizure. Such behaviour is sublimated snooping.

Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, is convinced that, “Arbitrary powers such as these are the purview of dictatorships, not democracies. Unrestrained, unregulated government spying of this kind is the antithesis of the rule of law and government must be held accountable for their actions.”[2] His views are the stuff of wind, passing May by with scant regard. They are not so much at cross purposes as operating in parallel dimensions. In such dimensions, democracy fractures, splitting along false assumptions.

There has been some meek opposition within the fragile, and very temporary coalition government. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, was not in agreement, finding May’s desire to expand the umbrella of surveillance problematic. In his words, Britain would be “setting a worrying international precedent” with such a policy.[3]

The problem of nourishing the surveillance culture is bound to be compounded given the recent spate of emergencies being thrown in the direction of the British security establishment. Current waters are proving choppy, with such groups as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) making a play for power in Iraq even as it savages its rivals in the Syrian conflict. All the more need, argue such individuals as the former UK Secretary of Defence, Liam Fox, for greater surveillance, rather than less. “That is a real question that we are going to have to ask – whether the security services have adequate resources for an increased threat.”[4] There are enemies everywhere, and these, according to Fox, are of the hating, insensible sort, who are determined to take a good dump on British values.

Fox, lacking the slightest bit of irony on this, leaves little room to reflect that the creation of such groups as ISIS have as much to do with a distinct program, and rationale, as they do with influence and inspiration from Western sources. ISIS, according to European powers and the US, is worth backing in Syria but destroying in Iraq. The same beast can double up as both menace and blessing. All, it seems, have taken of the root of insanity when it comes to the region.

It is worth noting that such militant and ferocious adventurism, often in pursuit of enemies that supposedly stalk the land, spell the end of any democratic sensibility. It is such states that justify abuses in the name of defeating abuses. It also encourages grotesque denials in the name of the broader, if ill-defined good. Threats such as ISIS come and go, but winding back the security state will be quite another matter.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

[1] BBC News, “Theresa May: There is no surveillance state,” June 24, 2014.

[2] BBC News, “Theresa May: There is no surveillance state,” June 24, 2014.

[3] Ben Farmer, “Theresa May: New Surveillance powers ‘question of life and death’,” The Telegraph, Jun 24, 2014.

[4] Nicholas Watt, “ISIS threat justifies greater surveillance powers in UK, says Liam Fox,” The Guardian, Jun 22, 2014.