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Opinion: Conservatives eye Big Brother

Nick Clegg has pledged to end "culture of spying" and surveillance in Britain. Is he endangering people in the process?

People walk past a building protected by a surveillance system in London, Nov. 2, 2006. Britain has become known as a surveillance society where Londoners can find themselves on camera more than 200 times a day. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

BOSTON — This is not going to be your grandfather’s Conservative Party in Britain anymore.

Being forced to enter into coalition with the Liberal-Democratic Party — even though the Liberals won only a fraction of parliamentary seats — the new leadership is in the process of shaking up both the Conservatives and Britain. Some say that the coalition is giving Prime Minister David Cameron the necessary cover to make wanted changes that the mossbacks in his party will abhor and might possibly block. Others say he has given too much away to the Liberal-Democrats.

But whatever the circumstances, I never would have thought that a Conservative prime minister would be the one to end hereditary peerages in the House of Lords, anymore than I would have expected Winston Churchill to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire, which he famously did not want to do.

But the change that really surprised me was the promise, by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, to dismantle Britain’s considerable surveillance system — a system that makes Britons perhaps the most closely watched citizens in the Western world.

In what was reportedly a hard bargain price for entering the coalition, the Liberal-Democratic leader said that the new government would “tear through the statute book,” putting restrictions on the thousands and thousands of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras that dot the kingdom.

Clegg said he would also scrap plans for a nationwide identity card system, as well as “biometric” passports containing chips to hold personal information, and curb the government’s ability to intercept emails, or hold DNA evidence from people who have not been convicted of crimes.

Dismantling these measures will bring joy to civil libertarians and privacy advocates, for Britain’s security services have a license to monitor the activities of their countrymen that would be impossible in the United States, and is unrivaled in most of Europe as well.

“This government will end the culture of spying on its citizens,” Clegg said. “It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide. It has to stop.”

It is true that Britons are closely watched. It is said that Londoners can find themselves on camera more than 200 times a day. Critics have referred to “Big Brother,” the omnipresent totalitarian state of George Orwell’s “1984.” Others have linked Britain’s massive surveillance system to “The Lives of Others,” Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film about East Germany’s spying on its citizens.

Watch a video about what it's like to live under the CCTV gaze in London.