Saturday, 17 October 2015

An Englishman's home. . . . .

Something called the Investigatory Powers Tribunal has decided  that even the private telephone calls, Emails, and letters of our members of parliament are not exempt from arbitrary interception by "the authorities."  So along with the rest of us, their private communications, however "confidential " they may be presumed to be,  can  be made available to umpteen different bodies on the whim of any bureaucrat who fancies a bit of finding out.

All this in the name of protecting us from  terrorist plots and sundry dangers.

What a contrast with the standards of privacy maintained in the mid 19th century.

In his splendid book "Bloody Foreigners" Robert Winder refers to the case of the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini, who, during his exile in England, discovered that the post office was tampering with his mail and passing on information to rival groups in Naples.  This caused an outcry, and debates in parliament, not because we were harbouring a revolutionary, but because his privacy had been invaded.  In a letter to The Times, the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote:

It is a question vital to us all  that sealed letters in an English post office be, as we all fancied they were, respected as things sacred; that opening of men's letters, a practice near akin to picking men's pockets, and to other still viler and far fataler  forms of scoundrelism, be not resorted to except in cases  of the very last extremity.*

That was in 1843 when I'm quite sure there would be as much anxiety of terrorist and violent activity of one form or another as there is today. But then there was a greater determination to defend the freedoms that others might be out to destroy.

There is much huffing and puffing from the Bufton Tuftons of this world about the maintenance of "British Values."  One of these is surely the concept  that "an Englishman's home is his castle," meaning that "the authorities" are not allowed to invade it, or, by extension the privacy of the occupants, without good cause.

The present mass surveillance techniques (including, as I understand it, the requirement of communications companies to keep all data for at least a year in case "the authorities"  would like to check it out) is clearly incompatible with this ancient right.

The organisation "Liberty" (formally the National Council for Civil Liberties)  recognises, like Carlyle above, that privacy may be violated  in "cases of the very last extremity"  but argues, among other things, that there should be "prior judicial authorisation  for all surveillance requests" and that such surveillance be conducted "for only narrow and tightly defined purposes."  For more details visit:

The issue is to be debated in parliament shortly.  Now that MPs know that, for once, they, like the rest of us, are "all in this together" they will take steps to safeguard our and their right to privacy.

* Quoted on page 148 of Winder's  book, which is a riveting read about immigration, and puts that into perspective too.

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