In January 2023, my friend and colleague Ruth Swailes was shocked to find that a conference at which she had been booked to present was in danger of being cancelled, as she and another presenter had been deemed unsuitable, apparently on the advice of the Department for Education (DfE). She was naturally distressed and sought reassurance and advice from close colleagues.
Cancelled by the British government
With our support, she swiftly determined to find out more about how this had happened. She subsequently submitted two subject access requests to the DfE. She and all of us were shocked to find that these turned up an extensive record of her social media activity stored within the department, alongside a set of emails discussing her, particularly with respect to her “suitability” as a speaker. One of these made a request to “do some digging” with respect to the possibility that Swailes was “bringing the department into disrepute”.
Another of these messages referred to a post that Swailes had reposted on X, with the comment “given that Ruth didn’t write this herself, I think this would be shaky ground on which to say she’s not suitable”.
I was shocked to discover this type of investigation occurring in one of the oldest democracies in the world. Of course, it is common knowledge that if someone is suspected of serious criminal activity or spying, there are intelligence services that would carry out such investigations.
But here, the indication was that a respectable, well-qualified education consultant had been put under surveillance for not exclusively referring to a prescribed government advisory document, in a profession where discursive professional interaction is routine.
When I saw the whole set of materials Swailes’s subject access request had turned up, I recognised lot of the social media posts contained within it, as I had been a participant in many of these discussion threads. Other people in our circle also realised the same thing. So, some of us decided to submit our own subject access requests. Mine turned up a record of social media posts that ran to over 40 pages, emailed between unnamed people within the DfE.
I have never been ‘cancelled’ from a speaking activity, as I am semi-retired and do much less public speaking nowadays. There was also no personal discussion of me on the emails. But nevertheless, it gave me an unpleasant feeling of being covertly surveilled, and records being kept on me of which I was entirely unaware, which I had previously understood to be unlawful under the general data protection regulations of the UK.
Given that Swailes’s situation was so much more serious than mine, I left the case to her to pursue further, alongside a couple of others who had also reported uncovering derogatory messages about themselves being emailed within the DfE.
During her investigations, Swailes discovered that chemical weapons expert Dan Kaszeta had been tracked by the government in a very similar way and subsequently been ‘disinvited’ from a conference, and that he had later received an apology from the government for this. He confirmed my understanding that such data keeping was, indeed, unlawful.
In September, the Observer asked Swailes for an interview; when she explained that several of her colleagues had also submitted subject access requests and received information that they also had a DfE ‘record’, we were additionally interviewed for the article.
The resulting article was subsequently discussed on social media, particularly between education professionals on X, by members of a loose professional network colloquially known as ‘EduTwitter.’ It was at this stage we received our second unpleasant shock.
‘Stop behaving like little girls’
Whilst many posters were sympathetic, a significant minority took the attitude that if we were going to criticise the government, we should expect records to be kept, and not be surprised if we were ‘cancelled’ from education conferences. A long thread followed, parts of which have since been deleted by the posters.
Within this thread, we were compared to “year five girls” (aged 9-10) making a fuss about very little, which brought the author of the Observer article onto the thread to remonstrate with the poster.
Kaszeta also joined in, to equitably point out if this is how the posters felt about us, their opinions must also apply to him.
The most baffling and surreal attack came from the DfE’s ‘behaviour tsar’.
Why the concern?
Some may say, well, social media is just ‘like that.’ But two things about this situation both sadden and worry me.
The first is that those who criticised us in this way are accounts that purport to be those of professionally qualified teacher colleagues, rather than anonymous social media trolls, and the second is that the way in which this conversation developed reminded me of the way that individual citizens’ criticism of government policy proceeds in authoritarian states.
In ‘The tragedy of Russia’s collapsed civil society and cultural life’ Stephen Davis explains how human rights activists, journalists and creative artists have been harassed, cancelled from public life and sometimes even imprisoned.
In the BBC Storyville episode ‘Inside Russia’, local councillor Nina Belyaeva describes how her speech detailing her concerns about her nation’s attack on Ukraine was denigrated by her colleagues. The film she made of the event on her phone is part of the documentary footage, and it makes very uncomfortable viewing. Her colleagues turn away, bow their heads and refuse to look at her, with one of them even shouting over her “Why doesn’t she shut her mouth?”
Belyaeva says, “I felt like I was being torn to pieces … but I couldn’t be such a coward”.
At the end of her speech, she asks her colleagues, “Can’t you think for yourselves?” But no one speaks up to support her.
She reports that, after the meeting, she got many private messages of support. This has also been the case for Swailes, myself and others. But in a democracy, this is not enough. In free societies, if people agree with those who criticise government practices, they must be brave enough to offer their support up in public. Because what we otherwise risk is the breakdown of democracy.
The threat to democracy
Western nations’ growing carelessness about civil liberties has also been noted by citizens of other less fortunate nations who have been given refuge in the west.
In a poignant thread on Twitter, Stas Olenchenko comments:
“As a Ukrainian person looking at everything that’s been happening in the world lately, here’s what I really, REALLY need people living in liberal democracies to understand as soon as possible.
“It may feel like your countries’ democratic institutions have been there forever – but that’s just because you were born after generations of your compatriots had given their lives to defend and develop these institutions … You’ve lived your life in the comfort of your ancestors’ victories, but you may be the last generation that can feel this comfort while growing up.
“Things are changing, and democracies around the world are struggling to defend against internal and external threats.”
Those who think Kaszeta, Swailes, myself and our colleagues ‘asked’ to have records kept on us by government departments because we criticised their policies, and thence to be ‘cancelled’ from public meetings should deeply reflect upon this warning.
Democracies seldom die suddenly. Instead, they are chipped away. In the early stages of collapse, it is very typical that small, subtle public signals of disapproval from government sources gradually cause individuals to become scared to speak up, to ‘rock the boat’, in case they are also seen as ‘non-compliant’.
What can ordinary people do?
Governments, however powerful, cannot cancel a majority of their citizens. But they can break a society down by picking off individuals and small groups off one by one.
There are now growing signs that British society is moving in this direction. The British people need to become far more aware of this drift and become individually brave enough to stand against it, to honour the rights that our ancestors fought for. Because if we do not, the result is too horrible to contemplate.
Bitterly reflecting in 1946, the year following the cessation of World War II, Martin Niemoller wrote:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.
On this coming Remembrance Day, with the state of the world, and our own nation, as it is, we would do well to let this warning serve as our focal reflection.