On Writing ‘A Modest Proposal’

Uschi Gatward

I was researching a story about surveillance when I came across a below-the-line comment on the Guardian site, appearing after an article by GCHQ in defence of DRIPA (Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act).

If you start reading those comments it’s possible you’ll fall down the same internet wormhole I did, but the one that really caught my eye is the one by EdSaint that invites us to make a little thought experiment by time-travelling back twenty years or so –

The government proposes that in order to keep us safe that every time we post a letter we need to register it for central records, senders name and address, receivers name and address. Also whenever we go to a newsagent, bookshop or library we need to register ourselves on entry so that any literature we take with us is recorded for central records. Oh, yes, and also the establishment will have staff monitoring you while you are there and taking note of anything that you casually browse or even look at for more than a second, just to keep a record, for your safety of course […]

­– and ends with the rallying cry

No-one would have accepted this totalitarian bullshit then.

Well indeed. In the nineties, DRIPA wouldn’t have got out the gate. I thought the comment was such a good and clear summing up that it deserved greater space and permanence. If I were Bob and Roberta Smith I might have painted it verbatim onto an old radiator or the side of a caravan or something, and parked it next to the Bude listening post. But I’m a short story writer, so instead I decided to take the idea for a walk and see where it went.

Swift was the obvious model, and I followed the structure of the original ‘Modest Proposal’ quite closely, the only real deviation being that I didn’t bother much with hyperbole, because it didn’t need it.

I listed the civil liberties that have been eroded or entirely removed over the last quarter century or so. In some cases these have been gains subsequently eroded, or erosions shored up a little. It took a bit of whittling down: it’s a long list. (Rachel Seoighe of Middlesex University School of Law helped me with the factcheck.)

In the weeks since I finished the piece and The Lonely Crowd accepted it, there have been one or two political developments, including MI6 escaping a smoking-gun rendition charge, and the Home Secretary responsible for the snoopers’ charter becoming prime minister. (Still topical, then.)

One of the people who has undoubtedly been paying attention to the steady drip-drip on the rock of individual freedom is David Davis, who a few weeks ago was in the tricky position not only of having backed the wrong horse for the leadership (and the right one, as it turned out, for Brexit) but of having a current European Court of Justice case (regarding DRIPA) against the Home Secretary – now suddenly elected unopposed as his new boss.

In an inspired move, May appointed Davis Secretary of State for Self-Destruction (Although I Suppose He Just Might Pull it Out the Bag and Then It’s Win-Win). Davis, now bound by collective responsibility as a cabinet member, withdrew his name from the ECJ case.

The machinery of the case continues without him, of course. The preliminary finding by advocate general Saugmandsgaard Øe – it’s a long one, so you might want to skip to the conclusion – is that the retention of data provided for by DRIPA is only justified in “the fight against serious crime” – and only when strictly necessary in that fight (all other methods useless or exhausted), and must be surrounded by safeguards protecting the rights enshrined within EU law. Which suggests that DRIPA needs a bit more work. Full court decision is expected in a few months and is likely to take the same line.

However, it doesn’t stop there. DRIPA is due to be replaced by the Investigatory Powers Bill (aka May’s snoopers’ charter), which will also need to be challenged. Whilst I’m sure the defenders of liberty can manage without Davis, his presence has added a certain weight to proceedings over the last few years. (I have been watching him – in a completely above-board and legal way – for well over a decade.)

Now he either makes a success of Brexit and continues silent on the subjects of civil liberties, surveillance and the UK government’s continued sponsorship of torture, or he fails (at one of the most momentous tasks currently facing the UK, with collateral damage to the national economy and security), and returns to the back benches but with his credibility damaged, perhaps permanently. Meanwhile, Theresa May is PM.

Interesting times.

uschi-gatward-headshot-square-crop-momayaUschi Gatward’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), Flamingo Land & Other Stories (Flight Press), as a Galley Beggar Press Single, and in The Barcelona Review, Short Fiction, Southword, Structo and Wasafiri. She was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize 2016.

You can read ‘A Modest Proposal’ in Issue Five of The Lonely Crowd, which can be purchased here.

Copyright © Uschi Gatward, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.