Cutting ContactPoint is the easy part
Of course the dismantling of the ‘database state’ should be welcomed, but it’s naive to believe that a new era of freedom will automatically follow.
At 12 o’clock on Friday, the ContactPoint database, which was planned eventually to contain details of every under-18 in the UK, was shut down. Within two months, the Lib-Con coalition announced, every name, every educational factoid, every doctor’s note so far collected will be destroyed. And it’s fair to say that few tears have been shed over ContactPoint’s demise.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Long-time opponents of such mass surveillance schemes, NO2ID, said they were ‘plainly quite pleased’ by the announcement. Similarly, the Lib-Con government was also in triumphant, freedom-loving mood: ’This is a surrogate ID card scheme for children, by the back door, and we just don’t think it’s necessary’, said children’s minister Tim Loughton. Coupled with the recent announcement that the National Identity Card Scheme is to be scrapped, and that CCTV cameras will be better regulated, it seems the monuments to New Labour’s reign of terror-mongering are being gleefully pulled down.
There is of course no reason to mourn the end of ContactPoint. Born of overreaction, incompetently developed, and an affront to the barest notion of liberty, it was in many ways the perfect embodiment of some of the worst aspects of New Labour’s period in office.
Its emergence and evolution are almost a parable of New Labour’s time in office. After the death in 2000 of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, a victim of horrific abuse and neglect at the hands of her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend, New Labour did what it did so well: it took a tragic exception and used it as a social rule. So, following an inquiry into her Climbié’s death, in which it was revealed that the police, doctors and social workers had all visited the young girl but had failed to share information, it was proposed that a database-in-common ought to be created. But it wasn’t to include only that small number of children believed by social workers to be at genuine risk – it was to include every single child in the UK. Recommended as part of the sinisterly-titled ‘Every Child Matters’ 2003 consultation paper, what was to become ContactPoint was instigated as part of the 2004 Children’s Act. This single port of call for teachers, social workers, police, health workers – nearly 400,000 professionals in fact – was to contain the name, address, gender, date of birth and a unique identifying number for all people aged under 18 in England, together with details of their parents, school and doctors’ surgery.
Given that all of Britain’s 11million under-18s were to have their identities shoved into this system, the ridiculous size of the task all too predictably ended up showing that, once more, New Labour couldn’t organise a surveillance society in a police state. Files for twins were merged into one, details of adopted children’s natural families were suddenly available to a potential 400,000 eyes, and, like every other large-scale project commenced under Blair and Brown’s stewardship, it was massively behind schedule. In fact, it was only launched properly in January last year.
But it wasn’t just the tale of dangerous ineptitude that accompanied ContactPoint’s development that so captured New Labour’s aspersive relationship to those it governed – it was the fact that it transformed the public as a whole into objects of suspicion. As privacy campaigners have rightly pointed out, it signified a massive intrusion not just into children’s lives, but into those who once would have been informally – implicitly – entrusted with children’s care, specifically parents. As Professor Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics argued in 2004: ‘The government proposes extending the surveillance mechanisms to all parents because they do not trust any parent to keep track of their own child’s wellbeing.’ In doing so, the type of surveillance and monitoring that once would have demanded exceptional justification was rendered routine. ContactPoint seemed to epitomise the database state, the surveillance society, that New Labour appeared so intent on constructing.
Yet there’s a danger in seeing the so-called database state, from ContactPoint to the indiscriminate retention of DNA from crime scenes, as the culmination of some sort of irrational, illiberal impulse inherent to New Labour. And it is a misinterpretion that then takes the current hacking at the monitoring, snooping edifice as a straightforward victory for freedom, with the Tories and Lib Dems as its vanguard.
The problem with this narrative is that the real meaning of the database state is missed. New Labour, despite what some argued, was never a continuation of that Cold War construct ‘totalitarianism’ in flashy, Blairite form. There was no conspiracy, no secret plan, no Nineteen Eighty-Four-style desire for overarching social control. And this is why the incompetence and ineffectiveness of the database state in practice is so revealing. As opposed to surveillance and domestic state-spying of old, whether it was aimed at the IRA, militant trade unionists or political radicals, the database state, with its myriad surveillance mechanisms, was and is indiscriminate. Its practical pointlessness – and the inefficiency that goes with it – was the flipside of its symbolic point: to manage our fears, to assuage our collective anxieties. It had to encompass everyone, it had to be pointlessly indiscriminate, because its target audience was the public as a whole. Although widely mocked, then home secretary Charles Clarke’s comments in 2004 justifying the national ID card scheme make sense in the context of the state as fear-manager: ‘[The national ID card scheme] is a profoundly civil libertarian measure because it promotes the most fundamental civil liberty in our society, which is the right to live free from crime and fear.’
That the state was able to see illiberal measures as fear-management stemmed not from an evil, Stasi-inspired plan, but from changes in civil society. The decay of the collective forms in which people experienced a degree of agency, from political parties to trade unions, has led to a situation where other people, other individuals, have now acquired a suspicious aspect. Trust is not to be taken for granted anymore. Other people are not assumed to be automatically like us, to share our interests, our outlooks. Instead, an atomising society demands an official guarantee that so-and-so’s not a threat, that such-and-such is not a child abuser or an inveterate purveyor of anti-social behaviour.
But while a society constituted increasingly along individuated lines might have undermined the traditional forms of state legitimacy by emptying political parties of their mass-membership and their socially rooted support, it simultaneously provided a new form of legitimacy: the state as the carer for an increasingly anxious public. This is ‘big brother’, all right, but not that of Orwellian nightmares – it’s the big brother who keeps an eye on you, just to make sure no harm comes your way. This is the meaning of the false dilemma between security and liberty: we are not being secured against tangible, actual threats to peoples’ lives, but against fear and anxiety in general.
Little wonder then, that as those older, largely twentieth-century forms of state legitimacy have been undermined, so the state has expanded ever further into societal life. Because not only does that mean it can fulfil its function as a fear-manager, administrating and regulating our anxieties – it also means it can reconfigure the state-citizen relationship. It could reconnect with us. While it might not know us by our political engagement, our choice of political party, it can now know us more intimately and more passively. As Brendan O’Neill wrote in 2008, ‘The more that government ministers and officials feel they do not know who we, the public, are – or what we believe and what we want – the more that they have moved towards watching, monitoring and recording our personal information. Unable to figure out what makes us tick politically, they have sought to get to know us technically: by putting us all on databases and effectively forcing us to engage with officialdom through vetting systems and the eyes of CCTV cameras.’
All of which makes the abolition of ContactPoint, the scrapping of ID cards and a renewed scrutiny of CCTV cameras a reason for very cautious celebration. During the New Labour years, our relationship with others, once mediated informally, came to be mediated by the state. And of course, anything that might open up the possibility of informal, unregulated social relations is to be applauded. But for such relations to flourish, it will take more than the abolition of the database state, which was always a symbol of contemporary mistrust rather than the cause of it.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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