And yet nobody, at least in Britain, seems to care. In the UK there has been an extraordinary disconnect between the scale and seriousness of what Snowden has revealed, and the scale and seriousness of the response. One of the main reasons for that, I think, is that while some countries are interested in rights, in Britain we are more focused on wrongs.
In Europe and the US, the lines between the citizen and the state are based on an abstract conception of the individual’s rights, which is then framed in terms of what the state needs to do.
That’s not the case in Britain: although we do have rights, they were arrived at by specific malfeasances and disasters on the part of the state.
Every right that limits the behaviour of the police, from the need for search warrants to the (now heavily qualified) right to silence to habeas corpus itself, comes from the fact that the authorities abused their powers.
This helps to explain why Snowden’s revelations, perceived as explosive in American and Europe by both the political right and left, have been greeted here with a weirdly echoing non-response. In the rights-based tradition, the flagrant abuse of individual privacy is self-evidently a bad thing, a (literally) warrantless extension of the power of the state.
Here in the UK, because we’ve been given no specific instances of specific wrongs having been committed, the story has found it hard to gain traction. Even if there were such instances – just as there were 2,776 rule violations by the NSA last year alone – we wouldn’t know anything about them, because the system of judicial inspections at GCHQ is secret.
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