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After ‘Discgate’, what now for liberty?

Ridiculing New Labour's incompetence is not a good enough argument against ID cards and the rest of its illiberal snooping into our private lives.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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After ‘Discgate’, what next for ID cards? According to the Tories, the New Labour government’s loss of two compact discs containing the personal and banking details of 25million Brits has driven ‘the nail in the coffin’ of the ID cards scheme. After all, if we can’t trust the government with our addresses and banking details, why should we trust it with all of our personal information, and a scan of our irises to boot? Newspaper commentators argue that if one good thing comes from Discgate, it will be the scrapping of the ID cards scheme as the British population finally realises that we cannot ‘blithely trust in the benign power of the state’ (1).

If New Labour did ditch its plans to introduce ID cards, I would be one of the first to celebrate. But the current, somewhat premature dancing on the grave of the ID card scheme, where people like Nick Clegg are arguing that, post-Discgate, an ID database would be a ‘honeypot for fraudsters’, shows up the parlous state of the debate about liberty today (2). On one side we have a government so mistrustful of, and generally just confused by, its populace that it feels the need to record our every detail and watch our every move. And on the other side stands the opposition to government, which is driven less by a lust for liberty than by a cynical mistrust of the powers-that-be. Both sides’ cards are marked.

The Discgate debacle certainly makes a mockery of what one commentator calls ‘New Labour’s mantra’: ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.’ (3) That slogan has been repeated ad nauseum by ministers over the past decade, as they have introduced more CCTV cameras, vetting schemes for adults who work with kids, and national databases of personal info. The government’s view is that if you’re a good, upstanding citizen with a clean bill of health (literally as well as metaphorically), then you have no reason to freak out over the collation of your details and the videoing of your walkabouts in public. Yet the 7.5million families whose addresses, banking details, children’s names and dates of birth, National Insurance numbers and child benefit numbers were on the two discs stupidly lost in the post are perfectly entitled to want such information to remain ‘hidden’. They do have something to hide – private information about their families and finances – and they’re well within their rights to be angry with the government for losing that information.

Discgate shows that people’s desire to keep aspects of their private lives hidden is not an indicator of suspicious behaviour: it is an entirely legitimate attempt to preserve their private spaces and keep them free from the prying eyes of busybodies. Families may be willing to give the authorities their bank account details in order that welfare payments can be made, but they expect such information to be jealously guarded – and there are numerous other areas of their family lives that they wouldn’t share with the authorities in a million years. Wanting to keep stuff hidden from the public gaze, whether it’s your children’s middle names or the heated arguments you might have in the family home, does not show that you’re a dodgy or dangerous individual. Rather, it’s about protecting private arenas, where we should be free to work out our own finances, relax with our families, speak freely, mould relationships and develop our personalities.

In the ID cards and other debates, it speaks volumes about New Labour’s suspicion of the population and its disregard for the integrity of private and family life that it sees ‘hiding things’ as odious and believes it has a right to know everything about us. Maybe that is why government officials seem so cavalier when it comes to recording and storing our personal information these days. After all, in a society where to hide things is bad and transparency is king, who cares if a few million families’ banking details are put in the post unrecorded?

The ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ mantra trotted out in the ID, CCTV and database debates sums up New Labour’s authoritarian agenda, and the way it has redefined the relationship between the state and the individual. Modern democratic states traditionally accepted the idea that people were free and self-determining, and should never be pestered by government monitors or the police unless and until they had done something to break the law. It was presumed that they were law-abiding citizens carving out a life for themselves, and thus they should be left alone. New Labour, with its new forms of surveillance, has turned this relationship on its head. Today, the organising principle of the relationship between the state and the individual – ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ – suggests that we must continually prove to the authorities that we are on our best behaviour. The demand that we leave nothing hidden is a demand to throw open our lives for the vetting and approval of the authorities. In everyday life, the burden of proof falls on to individuals to demonstrate their obedience and purity, by agreeing to be filmed as they walk down the street, or vetted when they apply for a job, or fingerprinted for a future ID card. New Labour’s culture of surveillance has severely tainted the culture of freedom. In effect, we are no longer free citizens, but objects of suspicion. We’re all on parole for good behaviour.

Yet many of the government’s critics, who claim that Discgate sounds the death knell for ID cards, don’t seem especially interested in defending individual liberty against New Labour’s authoritarianism. Their main argument is that an ID card scheme simply won’t work because the government is so incompetent. As Lib Dem Nick Clegg argued, ‘Civil liberties arguments are not the only reasons I, and so many of us, oppose ID cards – far from it. The ID card database will, in effect, put massive amounts of our personal, private details into a giant box marked “steal me”. It will be a honeypot for fraudsters.’ (4) Here, the anti-ID cards stance looks less like a demand for liberty (‘far from it’) and more like the exploitation of the politics of fear to encourage people to distrust the government. Where New Labour stokes up fear – of crime, terrorism, anti-social behaviour – to justify its authoritarian measures, its opponents stoke up fear of identity theft and general chaos to challenge those authoritarian measures. Arguments for independence and liberty are notable by their absence.

In many ways, the anti-ID cards campaign, beloved of Lib Dems, newspaper columnists and lawyers, has come to embody a kind of middle-class disgruntlement with New Labour. Those who fret over ID cards frequently focus on government incompetence, official disorganisation, and New Labour’s ‘failure to listen’ – many of them seem to view the government’s plans for ID cards as a kind of personal snub, or a step too far (5). If the anti-ID cards brigade was driven by a desire to rescue freedom from the grip of a suspicious government, you might expect it to be more consistent in its defence of liberty. Yet those who oppose ID cards very rarely raise problems with something like the government’s Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, a Stalinist piece of legislation that requires every adult who works with children (some nine million people) to undergo criminal records checks, or with the government’s increasing use of healthcare services to police the behaviour of certain kinds of families (6). It seems one reason why sections of the chattering classes are so agitated by the ID card scheme is because it will spread government snooping into their lives, too. It is one thing for working-class families to be objects of suspicion, and for those who work in schools, youth clubs and local sports centres to be treated as potential criminals – but we can’t have a situation where even columnists and lawyers are branded suspects by having to carry around ID cards, can we? In truth, if you give the nod to the state when it ratchets up its surveillance and checking of the population at large, you cannot really be surprised when it turns around and does the same to you.

spiked is a loud and proud opponent of state interference into people’s lives. People need independence from the state in order to carve out meaningful and fulfilling private lives, and to have the freedom to think, speak and act as they see fit. Yet the post-Discgate challenge to the ID cards scheme, based on a partial and cynical critique of New Labour’s interventionism, is more about running scared from an apparently out-of-control government than issuing a serious challenge to its warping of liberty. Discgate was a mess, but we need to do more than point the finger at official incompetence if we are to challenge the drift towards authoritarianism.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume said Gordon Brown had lost it in The Mail. Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Gordon Brown was unfit to be prime minister and interviewed Chris Atkins who has been vocal in his opposition to ID cards. Dolan Cummings looked at the surveillance society. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.

(1) Even if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s plenty to fear, Jenni Russell, Guardian, 21 November 2007

(2) Their cards marked, Nick Clegg, Comment Is Free, 20 November 2007

(3) Even if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s plenty to fear, Jenni Russell, Guardian, 21 November 2007

(4) Their cards marked, Nick Clegg, Comment Is Free, 20 November 2007

(5) UK ID scheme rides again, as biggest ID fraud of them all, The Register, 25 May 2005

(6) See The Tyranny of Health, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, Routledge, 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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