10 Years of David Cameron: The Prime Minister on Tech, Science, Privacy and War

By James O Malley on at

Astonishingly, today marks ten years to the day since David Cameron won the leadership of the Conservative Party. We could spend all day discussing his political impact - and the remarkable political project on which he has embarked to make the Tories once again an election winning force. But that’s for elsewhere.

What about the topics that Giz cares about? Has Cameron been a friend to science and technology? Is the Prime Minister respectful of our civil liberties or does he want to spy on us? And does he like to throw the first punch?

So in this article we’re talking about how his views have (or haven't) changed as he has had to pivot from winning over his party, to winning over the country, and then to the actual business of governing.

Science and Technology

One of the most enduring images of Cameron’s early leadership was taken on a trip to Norway, when he was pulled along on a sled by huskies in a bid to prove his green credentials. This was a clear nod to the science of climate change and a rebuke to the so-called climate ‘sceptics’, who deny that the Earth is warming due to man-made factors.

Sadly though, a decade on and he hasn’t been the keen environmentalist that many were hoping for. Earlier this year, ten green groups including the National Trust and Greenpeace criticised the PM for watering down his policies (presumably using melted ice caps), saying “We have, as yet, seen no positive new measures that would restore the health of the environment or grow the low carbon economy.”

And bizarrely, cutting subsidies on wind and solar power to encourage their usage was part of the most recent Conservative manifesto. Of course, at the time of writing the Paris climate change summit is still underway and the hope is that there will finally be a legally binding international agreement to limit emissions, so it is likely that Cameron’s climate change legacy is still being written. Let’s hope he’s making an effort.

I asked Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association which supports scientists and promotes science more generally for his take on Cameron’s tenure. He told me:

“Cameron's mostly stayed impartial on science. Depending on who you listen to, his government have either protected or simply 'not cut' science, but that's largely been down to George Osborne. He hasn't stood in the way of controversial bioscience like admixed embryos, but he's not publicly championed much research either. And while he's tried to project an environmentally-friendly image at times, he hasn't been a full-throated advocate for dealing with climate changer either.”

So it seems that Cameron has been fairly neutral on science on the whole – while he hasn’t been a great advocate, he at least hasn’t done too much active damage to basic research and the like,

Imran also pointed out that Cameron has previously appointed ministers who do seem interested in science. The whole tuition fees debacle in the last Parliament aside (that’s another debate), former Universities and Science minister David Willetts was definitely a supporter of science. Chancellor George Osborne has kept science funding relatively intact despite cuts elsewhere too. In previous years he kept the science budget static in cash terms - rather than force cuts, and in the most recent spending review he announced that the government is keeping the science budget the same in real terms this time around, so it will be increasing slightly with inflation.

Perhaps this isn’t the massive spending on science that us nerds might want, but at least science isn’t facing the same scale of devastating cuts as many other parts of the public sector.

Privacy

“We have seen much legislation that is at the same time authoritarian and ineffective - legislation that fails to protect our security but which in the process undermines our civil liberties.”

This might sound like a brutal critique of the government’s plans for the Investigatory Powers Bill, which will legalise the bulk collection of data and snooping on our digital lives, but these are actually the words of David Cameron speaking way back in 2006 about his proposed “British Bill of Rights”.

Initially Cameron tried to position himself as a protector of our privacy and our civil liberties against an increasingly authoritarian Tony Blair. He opposed ID cards, for instance. At the time it made sense to do so. His closest rival in the Conservative Party leadership contest was who later became his Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis. Davis, a quasi-libertarian famously resigned his own seat in 2008 over civil liberties issues, to force debate on the issue. So Cameron couldn’t be seen to be too crazy.

But Cameron’s position of privacy has evolved over the course of his leadership. Jim Killock, the Executive Director of the Open Rights Group described to me this evolution in Cameron’s thinking, explaining:

"In his early years as leader, Cameron was very critical of what he saw as excessive reach by the state - saying in 2009: 'If we want to stop the state controlling us, we must confront this surveillance state.’ This included the rejection of projects such as ID cards and a commitment that the Tories would scrap a database that would hold details about every child in England. The Conservatives also condemned the first incarnation of the “Snooper’s Charter” under Labour, which wanted to record everything about who you communicate with online, for use in police investigations. Cameron is now proposing the same powers in the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. The Bill goes even further in respect of the security services and would among other things, give the security services the power to access any private and public datasets about UK citizens regardless of whether they are suspected of any crime."

Needless to say, the ORG, which campaigns on privacy and digital rights issues, isn’t very pleased at the U-turns that Cameron has made. It seems that since entering government Cameron seems to have been ‘captured’ by the security-paranoid state, and in addition to pushing for the Snooper’s Charter, he has advocated for action on “extremism” and “hate speech”. And of course, though there has been no formal legislation, he was able to secure the agreement of Internet Service Providers to enable adult-content blockers on websites by default. Not that you would visit any websites that would cause you to notice, right?

Jim summed it up by saying:

"If [the Investigatory Powers] law passes in its current format, Cameron will have presided over the introduction of the most intrusive surveillance legislation that the UK has ever seen and any promises of confronting the surveillance state will have been broken.”

Perhaps Cameron’s approach to individual privacy is most chillingly summed up in a speech to his national security council, which apparently said:

“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”

It was like something that had been written by Dr Doom.

War

And finally… what about war? The chances are that his success here is still being decided. We can talk about how Cameron has been in charge while British troops were finally withdrawn from both Afghanistan and Iraq, and we could talk about his launching of British participation in the bombing of Libya to support the rebels there, or his failure to secure British participation in bombing the Assad government in Syria in 2013. But all of this could in the end be overshadowed by the action he took just last week when Parliament voted on military action in Syria.

If judged in the context of Cameron’s wider foreign policy, it might be possible to make some observations or reach towards some conclusions. Like Tony Blair before 9/11, Cameron has never seemed very interested in the rest of the world, and there are plenty of examples of Cameron sacrificing British foreign policy for short term political gain, such as when promising a referendum over European Union membership. This not only put important aspects of Britain’s future in doubt but isolated him amongst allies: When it came to negotiating with Vladimir Putin after the occupation of Crimea, the talks were led by Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande. Britain wasn’t even invited. Under Cameron’s watch, there have also been big unknowns, such as the pivot towards wholeheartedly embracing a potential adversary - China. But we won’t know if this will pay off for Britain or go up in smoke for some time yet.

Ultimately, as the military theorist Carl von Clasewitz noted, war is just a continuation of politics by other means. So it is almost certainly too early to tell whether British participation in Syria will make any difference to what goes on there. Just as historians still argue over whether it was American nukes or Russia declaring war on Japan which ended World War II, modern wars have long and controversial legacies too. Even the seemingly straightforward wars, like the bombing of Kosovo in 1999, have more complicated outcomes when viewed with a historical lens. So given the complete mess that is the Middle East at the moment, it isn’t a question that is easy to weigh in on. Mr Cameron will just have to hope that history was on his side.

Top Image Credit: Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance (modified)


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