Monday, 2 March 2009

Staatssicherheit nach englischer Art (State Security, English Style)


If you watch the German news, it sometimes feels like the view of the UK from Central Europe is like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. That group of windswept islands afloat in the Nordsee look far, far away from what's really happening in Europe, and appear rather small and insignificant from this distance. It's also like looking back in time, to a nineteenth century era when parliament was carried out by men of privileged backgrounds or who wore ecclesiastical gowns and funny hats; where a dynastic monarch was still nominally the head of state; and where governmental business was carried out behind locked doors in a Gothic Gormenghast of secret corridors.

Of course that's just typical European Union bias isn't it? If for instance the citizens of the UK wanted to read the cabinet minutes relating to the invasion of Iraq, as recommended by the Freedom of Information Commission as being in the public interest, then of course the people who democratically appointed their government to work in their best interests should have a right to see those deliberations. Just to make sure that there was a very good reason why hundreds of thousands of people died as a result of the war, and that the millions who marched in opposition were all mistaken in their concerns. But no, not a chance. And rather than appealing the decision of the Information Tribunal in the High Court (and possibly lose again), last month Justice Secretary Jack Straw, with the approval of the Cabinet, decided to use the power of veto to over-rule it. Just like that. (see this Times online article http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article5801842.ece for example).

Thankfully, in a democracy there is the balance of the Opposition who can countermand abuses of power. Except that the Tories also voted for the veto; after all, they might need to keep their own cabinet meeting minutes secret soon.

How very different this seems from the German constitution, with its strict set of balancing measures which prevent any one party or person wielding ultimate control, or coming to a decision or issuing an act of law other than totally transparently. Even the difference in parliamentary buildings is starkly contrasted: 

On the one hand there is the German Bundestag, a modern glasshouse where you can literally see the workings of the debating chambers and offices of government from the outside, or by peering down on them from above in Norman Foster's dome. 

On the other are the UK Houses of Parliament, looking like a mad Victorian's idea of a medieval palace and about as impossible to penetrate if you are not one of the privileged few. 

There are often demonstrations on one thing or another right outside the Bundestag, where the ministers and elected representatives can see the protestors through the plate-glassed windows of their offices and meeting rooms (and vice versa). 

The Houses of Parliament meanwhile are hidden behind a wall of concrete anti-tank blocks, armed Police officers, and one of the most elaborate CCTV surveillance networks in the world. And a one mile exclusion zone where spontaneous protest is against the law.

One seat of government is surrounded by playful works of modern art in bright primary colours and lighting. The other is surrounded by severe statues of dead, long-forgotten statesmen, kings, and military leaders. I'll leave you to work out which is which. You get the picture by now.

But it is with the UK's rapidly growing DNA Database that it looks like you are seeing the past re-enacted. This is the database, you may recall, which is the largest in the world. The one which the European Court has ruled breaches human rights where data is retained on the DNA of suspects later shown to be innocent of any unlawful doing. The database at the heart of 'surveillance society Britain' slammed by Lord Goodlad's House of Lords Constitution Committee. That database, you might have read, that stores the genetic information taken from nearly 1.1 million children. The database which the government itself admitted has at least 500,000 false or mis-spelt names on its records. (If you don't know the background to these stories, the Guardian newspaper is keeping a track of them here.)

There are very good historical reasons of course for the intractability of the German constitution. Never again should a minority fascist party ever be able to take over the reins of government and bend the power of the state to its own evil ends. What the twisted thugs of Hitler's murder squads could have done with a database showing the genetic profiles of every person in Germany and its occupied territories doesn't bear thinking about without having nightmares.  

And I'm not just talking about the National Socialist monsters. On Normanstrasse in former East Berlin stands the former HQ of the Ministry of State Security or Staatssicherheit, often abbreviated to 'Stasi'. From here the lives of millions of DDR citizens were recorded and scrutinised for subversiveness to the Communist regime. Instead of CCTV's, microphones were planted in people's homes, or Stasi Mitarbeiters spied on and photographed their neighbours and colleagues. Most significantly of all, hidden under the seat of anyone brought in for questioning was a piece of cloth which would collect their sweat. The cloth would be securely bottled and stored away, so that if the suspect was later accused of being present at the scene of disloyal activity, sniffer dogs would have a sample of body odour to match or to help track down the unfortunate person.

Does that sound familiar? A unique chemical fingerprint collected in the course of an investigation into someone who might be innocent? A unique marker which might be detected at the scene of a later crime against the state and used in a Court of Law? This is where I have a feeling of déjà vue when I  read about the UK's DNA Database.

After the Berlin Wall came down, the Stasi HQ was ransacked by the people in the name of freedom from state suppression (Freiheit!). The personal records were made available to be read by the individuals whose privacy they violated, including the painstakingly pieced together files of the thousands of records shredded by the Stasi in the last days of the DDR.

A state which believes every one of its citizens could be guilty of a crime, which conducts its business in secrecy, which spies and lies to the people who gave them a mandate of power, is a Police State by any other name, not a democracy. No wonder, with its past of unbelievable horrors conducted by leaders with unchecked power of intrusion in the lives of the individual, Germany looks on the workings of the UK government aghast with apprehensive foreboding.

Rant over. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.



Stasi 'smell jars'. Image found at scienceblogs.com

2 comments:

  1. Many of the same things can be said of the U.S.
    Unfortunately I don't think that things will ever reverse back out of this horrible decline in personal freedom for either country.
    I like Germany more and more each day.
    Great post!

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  2. Couldn't agree more. Since moving to Berlin last year I've started to view the UK as somewhat of a backwards island nation ruled by a privileged few. Those in power seem to be preoccupied with spreading fear through the media in an attempt to convince ordinary people that they are somehow in constant danger.

    Terrorism, knife crime, the recession then become a great excuse for the government to introduce draconian laws which limit people's freedom. A giant computer database that records all electronic communications from all UK citizens is one Orwellian fantasy they're currently trying to get through Parliament!

    You can't even take photographs in certain parts of central London anymore without being stopped by the police in case you're a "terrorist surveying potential sites to attack".

    I like Germany, I like Berlin. People are more relaxed, and despite the bureaucracy the government seem to operate in a less overt manner. This gives people the space to enjoy their lives, as they should.

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