Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Blunkett, "friend of Liberty"

The 75th anniversary of Liberty has brought forth some unlikely encomiums, but few more unlikely than David Blunkett. So the news that even the most hardline home secretary (apart from most of the others) that New Labour ever produced thinks things have gone a bit far in the authoritarian direction would be worth celebrating, if true.

But of course it isn't.

There have been reports today that he has reservations about the data-sharing provisions in the new (and Frankensteinian) Coroners and Justice Bill - and that he will use a lecture at Essex University to call for "urgent clarification" of the government's proposals. On closer examination, he is suggesting little more than a PR exercise. He's certainly not repenting of his time in office, during which he earned the reputation (now being challenged by Jackboots Jacqui) of the most authoritarian home secretary in living memory. In an accompanying article, he comments that the view of him as a hardliner was a "misunderstanding". What he was actually doing, it turns out, was "freeing people from the fear and instability that leads to political alienation and the danger of a lurch to the right". What a depressingly limited and negative view of human nature. But at least his meaning is clear: if we don't pander to people's fears and prejudices they'll vote for the BNP.

But what does he mean when he says:


To make sense of a world in which rapid change and globalisation create genuine insecurity, we need benchmarks by which we can judge our actions and their long-term impact.


Or

We need principles upon which we can base actions that, in the name of protecting freedom and decency, may otherwise become oppressive, intolerant of difference and self-destructive?


Blunkett contrasts "private enterprise surveillance and intrusion" with the wholly benign sort practised by government, oblivious to or uninterested in the difference between information freely (if at times foolishly) volunteered and that collected by the state using powers of legal compulsion and then made available to hundreds of thousands of public employees. His call for greater "clarity" in the scope of data sharing and surveillance are based mainly on possible inefficiency and negative public perception.

"We are not a surveillance state" he claims, accusing Dame Stella Rimington (who might be expected to know a surveillance state when she saw one) of "meanderings" and others of "pontificating" about "Big Brother Britain". "Only those who have lived in a police state can appreciate just what that term means" he adds. Perhaps he could have a word with Timothy Garton Ash, who recently contrasted the freedoms now available to the citizens of the former East Germany with the surveillance nightmare that Britain is now becoming. "I still cannot quite believe this is happening to my country" he wrote. He's not alone.

This is Blunkett's most striking suggestion:

There is a misconception that the database for biometric passports and ID cards might be misused. That's why I'm coming to the conclusion that we may have to consider simply making passports universal. If people wanted an easy-to-carry card, as with EU travel documents, they would be able to buy one voluntarily (with ID cards remaining compulsory for foreign nationals).


Now I can see what Blunkett's driving at. ID cards have something of an image problem. Even though the Home Office likes to produced biased surveys supposedly showing widespread support for the scheme, even the most knuckle-dragging bureaucrat realises that there is a large and growing army of dissenters. ID cards, for many, are an alien imposition, a sinister new development, unprecedented in peacetime in this country, which summon up images of police officers demanding to see people's papers. The phrase has an un-British, police statist ring to it.

Passports, on the other hand, sound much friendlier. They've existed as long as anyone can remember, and they summon up images of holidays and trips abroad. Of course, they also have less pleasant associations with queues and, since New Labour came to power, increasingly steep fees, but still, no-one's going to come out into the street shouting "No to passports". Familiarity, breeding inertia, makes the most abstractly intolerable things seem a normal and unbudgeable part of life; new things, by contrast, appear with all their faults exposed. It's why the poll tax was such a spectacular disaster when it was introduced in the late eighties, and also why the anachronistic TV licence survives.

When he was at the Home Office, Blunkett toyed with calling ID cards "entitlement cards", the thought being that by making the cards essential to access public services people would come to associate them with the health, education or benefits to which they were entitled. His latest passport idea is much the same. His solution would preserve the real dangers of the identity management system, with its mass registration, its multifunction database, its vast apparatus for monitoring and control of the population, and its inevitable mistakes (with terrifying consequences for individuals who lost their card, or whose details turned out to be wrong). But by disguising the ID card as a passport, Blunkett imagines that people will lose sight of what it is.

I assume he also hopes that by attempting to distance himself from the forseeable consequences of his own policies people will forget what he was like in office. Fat chance.

4 comments:

Waltz said...

"Pandering to fears and prejudices" is one of those weasel-words phrases - rather like "populism" - employed in democracies whenever public opinion begs to differ with the speaker's opinion ...

I think it's pretty clear by now that New Labour sought to permanently change the face of this country by allowing in an unprecedented number of immigrants (both legal and illegal) to provide cheap labour and to vote Labour. It was a "smash the system forever" policy. In order to pull it off, they felt the need to accompany it with draconian legislation, the erosion of long-established civil rights, and little matters like freedom of speech (Silent! You at the back there!). Turning racism into the modern-day equivalent of being denounced for witchcraft has also served them well. Don't like the way things are going? Well then, you're a racist and beyond the pale!

They may even have pulled it off, just. The next few years will tell.

The Heresiarch said...

I agree with much of that. I suspect the government is far more fearful of, and prejudiced about, ordinary people than most people are of each other. What makes people feel resentful is unfairness: and they blame the government for that, not their neighbours.

Olive said...

we may have to consider simply making passports universal

'Universal', David? Excellent choice of word. Much better than, ooh, I don't know, 'mandatory', or 'compulsory'.

Anonymous said...

NewLabour = NewLies

This man (sic) takes the biscuit and it seems wants to eat it too. His remarks are risible. Thses comments amount to no more than spin for the NewStassi way of doing things. I don't want an ID Card. No one I know wants an ID Card. We all think this government is washed up scum. Removing our hard earned liberties is not the way to treat the population and hopefully these trough swilling pigs will learn that soon enough. They should all hang for what they have done.