Down with state secrecy

James Turley situates the arrest of Damian Green within a general trend towards authoritarianism

“Police state Britain,” fumed the Daily Mail in perhaps its most memorable front page since its ‘Murderers’ stunt upon the release of Stephen Lawrence’s alleged killers. “MPs want protection after arrest of Tory for telling truths Labour didn’t want you to know” (November 29).

As well they might, following the creepily slick police raids on both Damian Green’s homes and both his offices (as an MP, Green is entitled to two of each, for his constituency in Ashford and for London business). He himself was arrested at his Kent house, and held for nine hours on suspicion of the somewhat Kafkaesque offence of “conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office”. While this could presumably take in everything from accepting bribes to engaging in lewd conversations with a secretary, it is specifically a series of embarrassing leaks which the state hopes to trace to Green.

What is more, it is apparent from comments by Commons speaker and Labour old-timer Michael Martin that the raids were conducted without even so much as a search warrant, the blame for which Martin lays a little too tidily at the feet of Commons sergeant-at-arms Jill Pay.

Green is a fairly typical Conservative politician, though he stands out as a grammar school boy among the raft of old Etonians and suchlike who dominate David Cameron’s inner circle. He is a member of the Tory Reform Group, motherlode of the so-called ‘one nation’ Conservatives famously despised by Thatcherite hard-liners as ‘wets’ for their lukewarm reception to neoliberal reconstruction. He is presently the only front-bench member of the TRG, and it is surely no accident that his portfolio centres on immigration, an issue where he can hardly pose a threat to the airbrushed Thatcherism that defines David Cameron’s project.

His crime is apparently to have been in contact with Christopher Galley, a young Tory civil servant, who fed him documents over two years. This allowed Green to make a number of attacks on the government, primarily over immigration policy, from a typically repulsive chauvinist viewpoint - the things Labour, themselves ever more vigorously ploughing the same furrow, “didn’t want you to know”, as the Mail put it.

The underlying story here is much as the Mail (hypocritically) tells it - the tendency, particularly in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, towards increasing the repressive powers of the state bureaucracy at the expense of both the private citizen and freely associated groups. The Tories, like the other major parties, bridge this gap, being both a freely associated organisation and an integral institution of the state - a party older in some respects than the very concept of a party.

9/11 was used as an excuse by the state to institute sweeping new powers, and the supposed ‘continuing threat’ of terrorist attack has sustained extension after extension of these powers, up to the 42 days’ detention legislation this year.

The first group to suffer at the hands of these laws was, of course, not any putative British branch of Al Qa’eda, but the liberal protest group, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which was picketing an arms fair in London in 2003. (It was most unfortunate, then, to find the Socialist Workers Party opportunistically supporting some measures in this general tendency, notably the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act.)

Fight for openness

However, part and parcel of authoritarian restructuring of the state - as much so as increasing repression, if it lacks the ring of scandal - is the obfuscation of its operations. There is obviously no point in leaking a fact which is already openly acknowledged - that there is a scandal to be had on this score relies on there being “truths that Labour didn’t want you to know”.

In practice, official secrets come to function as a kind of private property of the state bureaucracy - an insight made by Marx as early as the Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right (albeit somewhat muddied by Feuerbachian jargon). They are a resource that the state can mobilise against the workers and oppressed masses; the concealment of vital information is itself disempowering, but also feeds into the pernicious impression that politics is a ‘specialist’ vocation, inaccessible to those without the requisite ‘skills’.

It should come as no surprise, then, that communists are opposed, absolutely and in principle, to state and official secrets. Our programme is based on the mass self-emancipatory action of the working class; it necessitates an extension of democracy beyond the fever dreams of the most radical liberal. Effective democratic decision-making is contingent, among other things, on the free availability of information.

Damian Green’s use of leaked documents was, to be sure, a chauvinist attack on immigrants; but it was also necessarily a small attack on the notion of state secrecy itself. It was this, rather than any embarrassment, which the state mobilised against.

As an aside, it must be emphasised that this is not merely a policy with regard to the state. The control of information is just as indispensable to the trade union and labour bureaucracy, which is itself partly legitimated as a ‘useful’ body by skilful self-perpetuation. The professionalisation of the union structures is of a piece with the parallel empowerment of informal (and thus unaccountable) networks. The labour bureaucratic structure reproduces itself as a middleman between labour and capital, and thus as an obstacle to revolution. So it is crucial for revolutionaries to attack the basis for this power, and demand the maximum possible openness in union affairs.

And the Weekly Worker is legendarily relentless in its pursuit of openness on the far left. Without openness, how can the activists of the left, let alone the wider working class, hope to understand the programmes and forces involved, the incipient and established differences? SWP members have been presented, almost out of nothing, with a split at their highest ranks - this has at least had the effect of making some kind of discussion of the group’s direction inevitable, but the total (or at least as total as feasible for the comrades) information blackout on discussions at the central committee level ensures that the core of the leadership will, with a few changes, emerge still in charge, though weaker. (It is notable that, when we do publish details of disputes or differences in the left groups, the inevitable rebukes are almost always precisely in the language of private property - the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Paul Hampton has accused us of “stealing” the minutes of the AWL national committee, for example.)

This is not a random concatenation of three arenas where we happen to decide openness is important. The principle is the same in each case - communism stands for radicalised democracy, the sovereignty of the masses; generalised secrecy and private appropriation of knowledge cannot but be opposed to this fundamental aim.

Crocodile tears

Our steadfast and thoroughgoing opposition to the Green outrage contrasts vividly with the opportunistic crocodile tears of the rightwing press.

That a Tory, of all creatures, should face political repression would indeed under some circumstances mark as a fait accompli the completion of the ‘authoritarianisation’ of British politics - the inauguration, at some retrospectively identified date, of “police state Britain”. But it in fact appears that the attempt to seal this leak has been a failure in broad terms. It is clear, apart from anything else, from the universal press outrage - at no time since the election of Labour in 1997 has the bourgeois media been quite so united in hostility to the government. An effective police state, however, would require a basis of broad unity among the ruling class - always rare in the early stages of a crisis, and evidently not in place now.

So the rather banal mutterings about Stalin, Orwell and the like are overblown - but precisely what purpose does this exaggeration serve? Precisely to portray as abyssal differences in policy what are in fact eristic point-scoring exercises. A memorable episode of the cartoon Futurama, focused on a presidential election, has the two main candidates arguing in a US-style debate. The first declares that the second’s 3% tax on shipping “goes too far”; the second declares that the first’s 3% tax on shipping “doesn’t go far enough”.

We are more than justified in seeing the Tory outrage broadly in these terms. Tory governments have been more than happy to issue D-notices (forbidding publication of ‘sensitive’ stories in the press), and Tory papers have been more than happy to comply with them (to say nothing of foaming at the mouth, often luridly invoking ‘communist plots’, whenever a Labour leftist gets his hands on a secret document). Evidently not a legal scholar, David Cameron tempered his displeasure with an admission that nobody is above the law, but nevertheless declared that Green had a “right” to solicit leaked documents - that is, a right to violate the law he is supposedly not above. The whole thing is of a piece with David Davis’s stunt resignation over 42 days - this resolute defender of our civil liberties thought that 28 days was quite enough!

There are, of course, real differences between the Labour Party and the Tories - it is particularly clear at the moment, when the economic crisis has highlighted the Thatcherite inertia of the Conservatives and the suddenly useful Keynesian rump of the Labour soft left. They just do not lie here. Both parties are comprehensively integrated into the state machine; both support, in principle and practice, the strengthening of the repressive apparatus and preservation of official secrets. Communists must fight these tin-pot authoritarians to establish a space for mass, revolutionary working class organisation.