Opinion: Conservatives eye Big Brother

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.

Yet, for all of that, societies in the age of terror have a right to protect themselves. Each must reach a delicate balance between security and civil liberties. Unlike the U.S., Britain does not have a written constitution, and much of what would be illegal in this country is not necessarily so in Britain. There are some measures, such as torture, for which society should show no tolerance. But in the privacy sphere it seems to me there is more leeway.

After all, we read that Facebook may be less vigilant about privacy than the British security services, and we give away more information about our daily lives today than would have been conceivable only a decade or so ago. Email is not really secure in the private sector. And think of the transponder on the windshield of your car that pays your tolls automatically. The toll takers have a record of every toll you went through on any given day of the year, and thus a blueprint of your travel.

If one can concede to the state the necessity of having to carry a driver's license, is a national identity card really so burdensome? And if there is no legitimate objection to having to show a passport when you enter or leave a country, giving your name, as well as place and date of birth, can a chip that might carry more information, and make it more difficult for a someone to steal and use your passport, be such a horrifying violation of personal privacy?

To be sure nobody wants an East German bureaucracy to take hold in the mother of parliaments, but given the realities of today, whereby some citizens as well as visitors, seek to blow up people in mass numbers, I don’t think that cameras keeping watch is anymore objectionable than an alert cop on the beat when you go for a shopping trip in London. After all, your credit card is going to give away where you have been and what you have been up to anyway.

I have been told that in Venice, during the days of Austrian rule, Venetians would go about in Mardi Gras masks all the time so that people wouldn’t be able to recognize them. No one could tell who was closing a business deal with whom when two elaborately masked men had coffee together at Florians. Nor could a jealous husband tell if that was his wife strolling with her lover. The Austrians, however, put a stop to it, just the way certain European countries are planning to ban Muslim women from covering their features completely today.

It is never easy to get the mix right when it comes to privacy and public security, but I, for one, feel better about London’s security now than I will when Nick Clegg is finished dismantling much of it.