Tuesday 21 December 2004

Home Secretaries and their funny little ways.

"What exactly is your problem with Blunkett?" asks a reader in response to my last, somewhat impolite, post. A fair question, really. Blunkett is an interesting politician, in that people only seem to hate him from the one direction. When someone says they hate Blair, you need further information to find out whether it's because he's too socialist or too conservative, too fond of using the army or too keen to get the UN's permission first, too soft on Sinn Fein or... no, I can't type the next bit with a straight face. But you get the point. The same applies to most politicians: people hate them for a wide variety of often contradictory reasons. But not Blunkett. When someone hates Blunkett, it's because of what he's done for civil liberties in this country. Presumably, in recent weeks, a few extra people have started hating him because of the way he treats his ex-lover and his children, which does appear to be pretty disgusting. But, politically, civil liberties are the issue, every time.

To be fair to Blunkett, he was a symptom of the problem, not its cause. Much as I'd love to say that his plans were his alone, they clearly weren't: Charles Clarke, a politician whom I regarded as quite reasonable and sensible until yesterday, is eagerly carrying the torch onwards. Much as I'd love to say that Labour are the problem, they clearly aren't: the (relative) economic liberalism of the Tories hasn't extended to social policy for as long as I can remember. Michael Howard will never be Prime Minister because people remember what he was like as Home Secretary and will vote accordingly. If Labour actually start locking people up for not wearing the correct armbands, then Howard might start to look like the lesser of two evils. The simple fact is that most governments of the last century or so have regarded the population of Britain as a problem that needs to be solved, and Home Secretaries attempt to solve the problem by keeping tabs on it and taking away its freedoms.

So Blunkett had two major problems: he was an efficient, capable politician; and he was Home Secretary. Home Secretaries being what they are, an inefficient politician, such as Straw, is ideal for the role: he certainly had some very illiberal plans, but they didn't come to much. But Blunkett, I'm sorry to say, was good at his job. And his job stank.

Under Blunkett, we have ended up with more police cameras on us than ever before. And I don't just mean speed cameras, which, as I've said before, I don't have a problem with per se. No, I mean the way entire city centres have been turned into observation zones, so that the police can proudly track your every footstep from the comfort of their desks. Under Blunkett, ID cards have gone from something governments occasionally suggested as a red herring whenever they had some other particularly nasty legislation to slip past the media's attention to a very real scheme that will certainly be introduced in the next year or two. Furthermore, they have gone far beyond mere cards: the government intend to keep a database of the face, fingerprints and DNA of every person in the UK, cross-referenced to our car's registration numbers, our phone records, and our preferred websites. And the bastards are going to charge us fifty quid for the privilege. Under Blunkett, the government have overturned the principle of presumed innocence: in rape cases, defendants are now effectively guilty until proven innocent. Thanks to Blunkett, criminals' previous prosecutions can be brought up in court, which is handy for the police, who will no longer need to bother their pretty little heads with the gathering of actual evidence. (Unsolved burglary? Just pick someone up who vaguely matches the description and who's done plenty of time for burglary. The jury'll convict when they hear his record. After a few years, maybe we could just have a hundred or so all-purpose criminals, going into jail on a rota basis. Which, come to think of it, would meet the government's prison population targets.)

Blunkett did two things I can think of which elevated him above the status of annoyingly efficient Home Secretary and onto The Pedestal Of Bastard. Firstly, as you may know, it is the tradition in Britain, when someone is wrongly convicted and locked up, to present them with a bill for room and board when their conviction is overturned. Yes, that's right: if you are locked up for, say, twenty years for a crime you did not commit, when your conviction is finally overturned, the government will present you with a large bill for the luxurious prison bed you slept in and the scrumptious prison food you ate. Needless to say, the guilty get all this for free. Now, it wasn't Blunkett's policy. But he did defend it in court as "reasonable". When the court found against the government, he appealed it, thus gratuitously pumping up the legal bills of the men the government had already so thoroughly screwed. The amounts of money involved are, to the Treasury, neglible. There aren't all that many miscarriages of justice, and a few hundred grand here and there is chump change to the government. This policy has never been about the money: it's a way for the government to demonstrate to the wrongly convicted that they are still as guilty as hell in the eyes of their lords and masters and that, just because they've got out of jail on a technicality, that doesn't mean they can't still be punished. It's illegal, it's immoral, it's cruel, and it's not even in the government's interests, but Blunkett defended it and called it reasonable. Bastard.

The other thing he did, which Charles Clarke is happily continuing with, is to mislead the public regarding the soon-to-be-imposed National ID Card by telling us that it won't be compulsory to carry it with us. The British public are traditionally opposed to the idea of having to carry ID with them at all times, and it was Blunkett who masterminded the way round this opposition. For those who haven't figured it out yet (which, sadly, according to polls, appears to be a majority), the card itself is just a minor detail. The way the government's plans have taken shape, it doesn't even matter whether they introduce a card. The database that the police will be using will contain your fingerprints and your DNA. Unless you change your fingerprints, which is painful and difficult, and re-engineer your DNA, which is impossible, you will always be carrying the ID with you, regardless of whether you're carrying the card. Blunkett certainly knows this, which means he was deliberately misleading the public. Bastard.

I hope that answers your question.


Andy said...

Michael Howard will never be Prime Minister because people remember what he was like as Home Secretary and will vote accordingly.You're a hopeless optimist Squander.

Michael Howard will never be Prime Minister for pretty much the same reasons why William Hague and IDS were never going to be Prime Minister and why John Major lost in '97. Civil liberties were not amongst those reasons, as far as I can tell.

I think we need to face up to the fact that civil liberties just aren't popular any more. Civil liberties are only an issue for a handful of cranks like you and me.

Squander Two said...

I didn't mean to imply that civil liberties are a major electoral issue: you're clearly right that, unfortunately, most people don't care about them, except insofar that they want them cracked down on further. But, though people like us are a minority, I think there are times when our views are important. You're right that Michael Howard will never win for all sorts of reasons. My belief is that, even if he manages to overcome all those reasons, though he might get a big portion of the vote, he'll never get enough to win, because there is an entrenched anti-Howard bloc dating from his days as Home Secretary.

But, hey, I could be wrong.

Gary said...

I thought of adding some more reasons to loathe Blunkett, but I'd be here all day. That said, the one thing that all the anti-people wheezes the govt has sprung on us - from the RIP act to ID cards - have in common is an obsession with control (and a lack of checks and balances to prevent that control from being abused).

For example, the principle of the RIP Act wasn't a bad one: from time to time, the powers that be should be able to intercept people's email or whatever. I don't like it, but I understand that it's sometimes necessary to track criminal activity. But councils getting that data? The post office, for christ's sake?

Similarly, the contingencies bill I emailed you about. On the face of it, a good idea - the authorities may well need extra powers in a severe emergency, such as a major terrorist attack on london. But from my reading of the bill, the definition of emergency is so nebulous and the powers so wide ranging, it's a truly terrifying piece of legislation.

Factor in technology - CCTV, databases, ID systems - and it gets really scary.

I don't believe that Tony Blair is suddenly going to become Stalin, but it scares the absolute crap out of me that we're happily setting up an infrastructure that's wide open to abuse, an infrastructure even George Orwell might have thought too paranoid and far-fetched.

Whenever I think about this I get so depressed I can't see.