Saturday, 20 February 2010

Learning to Hate Big Brother

At the end of last year I suggested that the tide was turning against the Big Brother state, that after years of sleepwalking into a surveillance society - one of the most pervasive and technologically advanced in the world - the British people were finally waking up. It seems I was right. A poll commissioned by the Rowntree Reform Trust - sent to me by Guy Aitchison of Power 2010 - shows that opposition is growing to various government measures sold as essential in the fight against terrorism and crime.

52% of those questioned said that ID cards were a bad or a very bad idea - up from 33% last time. Only 37% approved. There was just as much opposition to the construction of giant databases and to data-sharing between government departments - which is central to Gordon Brown's big idea of "transformational government". 65% disliked the idea of the government "collecting information about citizens and storing it on large computer systems which can then be used for a wide range of purposes and shared between different parts of government". There was only slightly more support for the centralised storing of NHS records - 55% thought that that was a bad idea. The question didn't even mention the cost of that particular project - £12 bn and counting.

Turning to the vexed question of the DNA database - something that is usually assumed to be popular, given the high-profile cases it has helped solve - opposition to the government's policy on retention would seem to be mounting. 92% supported the indefinite retention of DNA for those convicted of a serious sexual or violent offence, "such as rape or murder", but this fell to 25% for those convicted of "being drunk or disorderly, or taking part in an illegal demonstration". It is current practice to retain the DNA indefinitely of everyone convicted of any offence whatsoever, something that no major party is proposing to change. As for the Home Office's Strasbourg-baiting decision to retain the DNA profiles of everyone arrested, even if never charged, for six years, this seems to have very little support in the country. A clear majority of 56% were opposed or strongly opposed.

Most unpopular of all was the proposal for "allowing the government to be able access your phone, e-mail and internet browsing records wherever they are held" - something that ministers claim is vital to the fight against terrorism, child porn and organised crime. 83% disapproved, with 55% considering it a "very bad idea." Unfortunately, the Home Office persuaded the rest of the EU to make data retention the subject of a binding European directive. It is certain to happen however many people object to it, and the government, if it proves massively unpopular, will just blame Brussels. That's how our democracy works these days.

It seems, then, that that message is getting through. People are learning to hate Big Brother. In some ways this is hardly surprising, given the prevalence of negative stories in the media: lost government hard-drives, lifelong friends told they can't be trusted with one-another's children, savage fines handed out to people who put their bins in the wrong place, photographers searched under terrorism laws and a government that manages to combine hectoring authoritarianism with bungling incompetence. A public that increasingly distrusts the state and despises the politicians who supposedly represent them is going to resent handing over ever more data to its fallible care. The infantilising mantra that "we are keeping you safe" no longer washes. And, in an era of looming cuts, the cost seems almost criminal.

We may even be in the middle of a cultural shift going well beyond the relationship between the individual and the state. Over the past few years it has become almost a cliché that privacy no longer means very much in the Internet age, an idea summed up by Scott McNealy's notorious statement that "You have zero privacy, get over it." That was more than a decade ago. In the years since, as people put their lives online for all to see, privacy began to look like an outdated concept. The future was with self-exposure, total disclosure, CCTV and data-mining. Perhaps that's why Google were so unprepared for the backlash that greeted them after their ill-considered Buzz launch the other week. It was, I think, a straw in the wind. Privacy is on the way back. And with it a renewed sense that people's personal data belongs to them, not to the world at large and certainly not to the government.

The poll also found that 80% favoured a new Bill of Rights. This, though, was Question 2 - Question 1 having already invited respondents to choose from a list of suggestions as to what such a Bill might contain. Having already chosen from the selection of goodies on offer - everything from greater privacy rights to guaranteed housing to abortion on demand - few people would likely to say they thought the whole idea was rubbish, would they?

Personally, I'm all in favour of a Bill of Rights - one that concentrates on political liberties, though, not social entitlements which are fundamentally different in nature. To enshrine a "right" to prompt hospital treatment - which was the second most popular suggestion on the list, just pipped (I'm pleased to say) by jury trial - would be to put an important aspect of social policy beyond normal political debate. Would such a right be justiciable? If so, the inevitable result would be needless, and expensive, litigation, taking resources away from healthcare. If not, the "right" is pure political posturing which debases the whole purpose of a Bill of Rights, which is to define the limits of state power. Either way it's a seriously bad idea.

There are still a couple of days to register your vote on Power 2010's ragbag of suggestions for renewing democracy. The five winning ideas will form the "Power Pledge" which will form part of the group's "major nationwide campaign" during the election. Proportional Representation is well out in the lead, followed by getting rid of ID cards. The battle is for the last three spots. An elected second chamber, English votes for English laws, and a written constitution are currently hanging in there. The Bill of Rights suggestion is nowhere.

I'm not altogether convinced by this Pop Idol approach to re-writing the constitution, though I enjoyed DK's suggestion that having English Votes on the final list will annoy the hell out of "the usual Guardian lobbyists" responsible for the project. The influence of Scottish and Welsh MPs, unable to vote on health or education for their own countries but having the casting vote on what happens in England, is as clear example of a democratic deficit as can be imagined. It's also easily corrected. So it got my vote. I'm disappointed to see some of the best ideas - such as cutting back secondary legislation, introducing more public consultation, capping political donations and removing the Parliamentary timetable from the control of the whips - are languishing. A thorough renovation of our politics can't be reduced to a five-point plan.