Think of it as the ‘‘Skyfall’’ session. In a committee room of the House of Commons, the heads of the British secret services appeared on Thursday before a panel of M.P.’s in what might have been a re-enactment of that scene from the latest Bond movie — minus the shootout.
Even without gunfire, it was not short of drama. The mere sight of the heads of Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, along with the director of its listening post, G.C.H.Q., was spectacle enough. This was their first joint appearance in public, addressing a parliamentary intelligence and security committee whose hearings had, until now, always been held behind closed doors. (Indeed, little more than 20 years ago even the names of the intelligence chiefs were a state secret.)
That fact alone guaranteed coverage on the evening news. Which meant a rare focus on the topic that provided the session’s most electrifying moments: the Edward Snowden affair. Rare because the dominant British reaction to the revelations provided by Mr. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, has been a shrug of indifference. The Guardian helped break the story — that the N.S.A. and G.C.H.Q. (Government Communications Headquarters) have engaged in mass surveillance of American and British citizens online — and has covered it intensely, but the rest of the British media have largely steered clear. In Parliament, a few maverick individuals have raised concerns about civil liberties and privacy. When others have mentioned the subject, it’s mostly been to accuse The Guardian of damaging national security, rather than to ask whether the intelligence agencies have gone too far.
What explains this reaction — so at odds with the response in the United States, where Congress is reviewing its oversight arrangements and where everyone from President Obama on down has acknowledged that a debate is necessary, if not overdue, and so at odds with, say, Germany, where memories of Stasi eavesdropping ensure revulsion at the notion of all-seeing surveillance? The answers say much about the current political landscape of Britain — and much of what lies beneath.
Start with the politics. One might expect the opposition Labour Party to have picked up the Snowden issue, eagerly casting the government as Big Brother. The trouble is, Labour was itself in government just over three years ago, doubtless allowing many of these same practices. It is in no position to throw stones now. Until 2010, the smaller Liberal Democrats could have been relied on to champion personal liberty. Untainted by power, and denied ministerial office for 65 years, they had never had to make the ‘‘tough decisions’’ so often cited in defense of the security services. Now, though, they are in coalition as the Conservatives’ junior partner. They can no longer complain about government intrusion: They are the government.
The media terrain has proved equally unpropitious for this story. The British press is known for its vicious rivalry: At least ten national daily newspapers, all headquartered in London, fighting over an ever-shrinking market. Few media outlets have run hard on the N.S.A. revelations, perhaps reluctant to give traction to a rival’s story. It’s worth admitting that The Guardian is resented by its rivals for exposing the phone hacking scandal that has resulted in the prospect of l state-backed regulation of the newspaper industry. What used to be Fleet Street is in no mood to follow a lead set by the paper that’s caused them so much aggravation.
Which brings us to the intelligence agencies themselves. At a time when so many other British institutions — from Parliament to the police to the B.B.C. and the National Health Service — have seen their reputations tarnished by scandal, Britain’s intelligence establishment remains in good standing. A YouGov survey last month, long after the Snowden revelations, found that only 19 percent of Britons believed the security services had too much power; 64 percent reckoned they had the right amount or not enough.
In Britain few blame the spies for what might seem like the gravest intelligence debacle in recent history: The expectation that weapons of mass destruction would be found in post-invasion Iraq. Blame for that error tends to attach to the former prime minister Tony Blair, who is believed to have seen what he wanted to see in the reports he received, rather than to the agencies themselves.
It helps that Britain — which in 2015 will praise itself once more as the land that eight centuries earlier gave the world the great freedom charter, Magna Carta — has a curiously complacent attitude to civil liberties. A pragmatism prevails: If it protects us, it’s O.K. Many Brits accept the old securocrat formulation: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.
For example, Britain is estimated to have more CCTV cameras than any other country, including China. They are found in every store, railway station, school or bus — one for every 11 people on these islands. People don’t object because the cameras are said to reduce crime. They violate no Bill of Rights or written constitution because Britain has neither.
And this might be the heart of the matter. Britain has a fundamentally different conception of power than, say, the United States. In America, it is ‘‘we the people’’ who are held to be sovereign. Viewed like that, the N.S.A., and other arms of the government, is a servant of the people: It is meant to do what it is told.
The British system, by contrast, still carries the imprint of its origins in monarchy: Officially, it remains ‘‘Her Majesty’s Government,’’ not the people’s. Power still emanates from the top and flows downward, with the public allowed a peek only when the state chooses. It means that Brits can be quite resigned toward the level of government power over, and intrusion into, their lives — because they don’t really see government as their servant in the first place. Britons remain subjects, not citizens.
And so, while Americans have been shocked and stirred to action by Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, Britain is resolutely unmoved. It’s not the old stiff upper lip of stoicism that you’re seeing, but a shrug of resignation and a habit of deference so deeply ingrained we hardly notice it.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian.