The Government Machine

Laura McLean

‘An un-numbered, un-recorded, and un-measured nation presents a spectacle somewhat akin to that of a museum containing a vast number of valuable specimens, no catalogue of which has been constructed and no systematic tabulation attempted.’[1]

During the First World War in Britain, as the government sought to cajole able-bodied men to enlist, various propositions were made for a ‘universal register’ which would make knowable the kingdom’s subjects, assist in locating these men, and otherwise streamline the war machine.[2]

The charming MP Noel Pemberton Billing, quoted above, proposed for instance the creation of a register to measure and weigh the economic and moral value of the ‘units’ (i.e. people) that collectively determined the greatness of the nation. This ‘complete physical, moral, and financial balance sheet’ would provide a guide to the effectiveness of government legislation in incentivising these ‘units exercising volition’ to live in a manner profitable to Britain.

At the start of the war resistance amongst the populace to such a register was strong, with such a ‘Prussian’ culture of surveillance considered to be at odds with British values. Billing’s proposal was not taken up, but a less manipulative scheme did make it off the ground for a few years, once Britons grew accustomed to living in a state of exception.

Seeking ‘to avoid shocking the national spirit’, it was concluded by that efficient and ‘unobtrusive’ national surveillance was possible thorough the interlinking of existing registers, such as the Housing Register, the Food Control Register, and the Registers of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, to create a centrally accessible database, the National Register. This was seen by its creator Sylvanus Percival Vivian to favour personal liberty, allowing the ‘rigours of procedure to be relaxed’, while creating an ‘invisible net’ which still went a long way towards realising the state’s fantasy of total knowledge.

This history, which I recount from Jon Agar’s book The Government Machine, was on my mind when I went to see Laura Poitras’ film Citizenfour during its last few days screening at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. It was a day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, and on my way to the ICA I passed through Trafalgar Square, where two huge French flags were projected onto the facade of the National Gallery.

Poitras’ knowledge and skills as an activist and documentary filmmaker were integral to making Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scope of the US’s NSA and UK’s GCHC surveillance schemes public, and to making this whistleblowing process transparent to the public. The lineage of Vivian’s panopticon logic is fully realised in the GCHQ, which has had even more far reaching powers than the NSA (though these have just been found to have been illegal).

It’s interesting to note that Poitras, a US citizen, lives in Berlin due to Germany’s strict privacy laws. The last century has seen a flip in attitudes towards government monitoring between Germany and the UK, where the national spirit may have been shocked by the contents of Snowden’s leaked documents, but was not necessarily surprised.

Some time after these documents were handed to the Guardian, the newspaper was forced to destroy the hardware on which they were kept, or else face legal action from the government restricting their reporting. A senior Guardian editor and computer expert used angle grinders to obliterate hard drives and memory chips in the newspaper’s basement under the watch of staff from GCHC.

On my way home, I considered the parallels between this violent intrusion in the offices of the media, and that which had taken place in Paris a day earlier. The spectacle of the flags at Trafalgar Square, as I understood it, was there to show Britain’s solidarity with France and its values, particularly concerning free speech, and the National Gallery, an icon of British culture, was the ideal canvas for this statement. Yet a few days later, predictably, came the call from the Tories for greater powers of surveillance, and for the banning of encrypted instant messaging services like Snapchat and WhatsApp.

Spectacle can blind us, and if to see is to know then Five Eyes are way ahead. But art’s power, before it is co-opted as cultural heritage, is to reveal the mechanisms at play behind and within the facade. And here I think is a good place to leave off, think about this, and come back over the next couple of months to tease this out.


 Laura McLean can be contacted on twitter at @LauraRoseMcLean


[1] Untitled and undated memorandum by Noel Pemberton Billing, quoted in Agar, Jon ’Fantasies and Realities of Total Knowledge’, The Government Machine, MIT Press, London, 2003, p.123

[2] The Government Machine, p.121 – 142

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