Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Today’s report that the Home Secretary is prepared to consider outsourcing the national database is one of the most alarming developments so far in the shaming story of New Labour’s flight from its own base, both in terms of its increasing instincts to control every damned thing and of its growing love affair with the private sector. As The Guardian put it, such a move “would be accompanied by tougher legal safeguards to guarantee against leaks and accidental data losses”, but of course there can be no such guarantee, however “tough” the safeguards.

We know already that the security applied to supposedly encrypted and/or confidential data is close to non-existent and that those who behave in a cavalier manner with sensitive material are almost never in practice subjected to penalty, either through the courts or even in their career paths.

I would like to make a modest proposal. Let Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, build into the premise of the operation of the national database’s security a provision that, in the event of a leak or a data loss, the then holder of the office of Home Secretary along with Ms Smith herself (whatever her then status) be obliged to serve a term of not less than two years’ detention in a maximum security prison. Such a provision would offer a rather more reliable “guarantee” against leaks and data loss and, moreover, would furnish both the then Home Secretary and Ms Smith with useful first-hand experience of “tough” security.

It never ceases to astonish me that politicians cannot envisage situations in which the powers that they wish to arrogate to themselves might be considerably more oppressive, for instance in the hands of some as-yet unforeseeable successor. In my lifetime, several European nations, not so unlike Britain, have laboured under dictatorships, usually of a military stripe. It is sadly not beyond the power of imagination to picture Britain too being governed by a regime even less concerned to protect the freedom of the individual than is New Labour. In fifty years from now, Britain will doubtless be a Muslim state. How much more effective will it be to inflict upon the nation the extremes of Sharia law when the Blair and Brown governments have created the infrastructure of surveillance that will allow a future mullah-turned-Interior-Minister to enforce orthodoxy on a British people who once rejoiced in their non-conformist traditions.

Rather more urgent – because the present economic climate makes it unavoidable – is the certainty that forms of access to the national database will be sold for profit to commercial organisations. Once the control of the data moves out of the hands of central government and into the hands of entrepreneurs who are answerable first to shareholders, the rush to cash in will become a stampede and government, having acceded to the thin edge of the wedge, will be powerless to prevent, say, your insurance company having total access to every financial transaction you conduct, every email you send or receive and details of every visit you make to a website. Is that what you voted for?

Sir Ken Macdonald, lately Director of Public Prosecutions, told The Guardian: “The tendency of the state to seek ever more powers of surveillance over its citizens may be driven by protective zeal. But the notion of total security is a paranoid fantasy which would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile. We must avoid surrendering our freedom as autonomous human beings to such an ugly future. We should make judgments that are compatible with our status as free people”. I couldn’t put it better.

Regulation is a perfectly honourable instinct in the make-up of the left. The current catastrophe of capitalism makes the case for regulation of the markets as no politician, however eloquent, ever could. But there is regulation and there is oppression. I do not say that the present government has turned to oppression … yet. But we are on a worrying path. Already more CCTV cameras gaze upon Britons than the residents of any other nation if measured by head of population. The suspicion that most of the cameras do not actually function properly helps to make the Brits relaxed about this chronic level of surveillance. After all, as a nation we are – we have always been – hopeless at maintenance. Count the clocks in public places that have stopped, the great majority of them not during the past month either.

If the level of surveillance actually delivered what it promised, there would be no shooting, no arresting and no convicting of innocent civilians. There would be much less theft, shoplifting, criminal damage and breaking in; much less speeding, hitting and running, dangerous driving and illegal parking; much less rape, kidnap, assault and child molestation; much less gang culture and fewer sink estates. The cost of this vast network of surveillance is nowhere near justified by its results.

So what the hell does the government want of this love affair with data-collecting? The knee-jerk response – that it is a crucial weapon in the front line of “the war against terror” – is a busted flush. The government could enact all manner of targeted controls on the community from which terrorism emerges if it were not so squeamish about giving offence to Islam. Faced by the loss of confidence in Labour among the non-Muslim population, part of it fuelled by the resentment at the imposition of oppressive regulation on communities that do nothing to justify it, you might think that Mr Brown’s advisors would suggest that he cut his losses and pursue a more broadly popular agenda.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


My thousands of regular readers may have wondered whether this blog, like many other enterprises over the last few weeks, has gone into receivership. The answer is no. I have been preoccupied elsewhere. I was away in London for several days and had intended to report on the shows and movies that I saw. Since then, however, we have been throwing into the air most everything in our home. It is a home stuffed with ... well, stuff, and said stuff has needed to be thoroughly rearranged ahead of an invasion. It is our turn to play host over at least part of the holiday – not before time, some family members will reasonably grumble – and we have to plan for up to seven, including two widowed aunts either side of 90, staying overnight. There has been such a to-and-fro of stuff – piles of things moved from room to room and back again – that for some days I was unable actually to reach my keyboard. Emailers have gone unanswered and junk mail undeleted. Only by dint of perching on a precarious pile and tapping with one finger was I able to get off a two-line letter to The Guardian (which the paper entirely rewrote before publication).

Anyway, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, at which time I will have some momentous decisions (for me, anyway) to impart and expound. In the mean time, assuming as I do that the hiatus will continue at least until that curiously deflated gap between Boxing Day and New Year's Eve, I bid you all a cool Yule.