The 4th of July is always a little bit odd for us here in the UK. It's usually accompanied with wry jokes about how we should never have let the former colony go. Jokes that mask Britain's enduring inability to see how the world, and our place in it, has changed. What has changed above all is that the balance of power is utterly reversed.
Whether it is on foreign policy or on the domestic surveillance of our citizens, successive UK governments follow America's lead unswervingly. We're not quite Airstrip One yet, but the 4th is no cause for fireworks and parades this side of the pond as far as I'm concerned.
The issue of US surveillance programmes such as PRISM has shown that far from respecting our independence, our Internet and phone communications are fair game for the American authorities. In Britain, our own snooping efforts under TEMPORA tapping the fibre-optic cables between the US and Europe are apparently shared with the Americans. The UK has been directly copying the rhetoric which has been coming from the Bush and Obama administrations, claiming that spying on our citizens is “protecting people's freedoms”. This is despite the fact that blanket surveillance in the Communications Data Bill was rejected as it would, well, infringe people's freedoms.
It is not too surprising that the Conservative party is not really willing to stand up to the US, but where will the push back come from?
It's tempting to look to Europe and the European Union as a balancing block to the size, financial muscle and might of the United States. Indeed, the EU's politicians have been more independent minded when it comes to PRISM and TEMPORA. Hannes Swoboda, Leader of the S and D group in the European Parliament hit out against blanket surveillance as “violations of the spirit of all the agreements we have with the United States”, adding that “America... is just doing what it wants”. The German government has voiced concerns to the US, the French have suggested postponing transatlantic trade talks.
However, when it comes to actually doing more than putting out a punchy press release to assuage public concern, Europe's leaders have failed. While EU politicians have been happy to use Snowden's revelations for their own purposes, they have been unwilling to offer him the protection he actually needs. His appeals for asylum have been rebuffed in various ways across our continent. The European Parliament was happy to back more endless bureaucratic navel gazing on the NSA programmes, but not to halt the EU-US trade agreement talks. This is extraordinarily rash after the revelations about the EU itself being the target of spying. The irony of this is that the justification given for holding citizens in the dark about negotiations is that it protects the EU's position.
The most farcical example of our collective craven attitude was the grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane amid allegations that Edward Snowden might have been aboard. We have now got to the state where we were happy to turn a blind eye to rendition flights (don't think we've forgotten you David Miliband), but freak out over a whistleblower working with respected newspapers being in our airspace.
However, at least our cousins across La Manche have been willing to take up a public debate. Here, the silence has been deafening. William Hague may well think he can get away with one evasive appearance in the House of Commons. It is up to us to prove otherwise. We have found the limits of the other parties who claim to support liberty in the UK. Despite making a great play about stopping the Snoopers' Charter, the Liberal Democrats have made no running on the NSA issue. PRISM and TEMPORA have once again exposed Nick Clegg's promises as hollow. He is Deputy Prime Minister in a government that when the US says “jump”, the question asked is “how high?”
What's needed is a clear response which will mean having to disagree and to debate frankly with the US. Pirate Parties have a number of concrete proposals to deal with the PRISM crisis- protection for whistleblowers, a real uncovering of the facts, strong data protection, an international treaty on Internet freedom, funding privacy concious software and action against any European PRISM equivalent. To get this will require saying no and enough to the American government. If other political parties lack the guts to do that, we do not.
The issue of mass surveillance has laid bare the fundamental problems in Europe-US relations at this point in the 21st century. What kind of military alliance can we have with a country that carries out executions by drone in Pakistan against the express wishes of the country's government? What kind of mutual trading relation can we have when economic interests are fair game for snooping even amongst supposed allies? What kind of common case can we make for human rights and decency with a country whose vision of cultural sensitivity is to force feed Guantanamo prisoners at night as supposed respect for Ramadan?
I don't want a special relationship with the US. I want a functional one with respect on both sides. The day when that comes really would be Independence Day.