On Saturday David Blunkett cast himself in the unlikely role of a Home Secretary who was offering hope based on security, as opposed to one engaged in a a 'fear auction' where the electoral prizes go to the politicians who can conjure up the most terrifying visions of what might happen. As Blunkett has been piling draconian security measure on draconian security measure this is a tricky one. But it's possibly a back-handed compliment to the recent BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares (good enough to justify theft if it isn't out on DVD soon) which argues precisely that.
Blunkett's speech was made to the New Labour group Progress, but bullet points on the lines of "Labour 'must avoid fear campaign'" were widely-trailed to the press beforehand. Prior to delivering the speech Blunkett himself had a go at a little contextualisation on Radio 4's Today programme and this, insofar as what he had to say was understandable at all, suggested that Blunkett was campaigning on fear, and that some of the things he has in mind are positively terrifying.
You can hear a rerun of the interview here, but an annotated transcription produced by Spyblog allows you to see it in all its glorious discontinuity. Blunkett kicks off by denying that the raft of measures he's brought and is bringing in is draconian, saying: "They're sensible, pre-emptive measures. Pre-emptive in the sense that we live now in a rapidly changing world, where people's fears are greater, not just in terms of terrorism, but fear in their own neighbourhood and community, and we've been able to establish stability and security in terms of the economy, and people's economic family life, we need to be able to do that in their immediate environment, and internationally, and in dealing with terrorism."
If anything Blunkett is here describing the process of fear-driven government. He is presenting his measures as a reaction to people's fears, but simply reacting to fear, without conducting any kind of assessment of whether or not that fear is justified, stokes it. And the description of the measures as pre-emptive simply reinforces this - he is acting not to deal with properly assessed threats, but with things that might happen. This is exactly the case Adam Curtis argues in The Power of Nightmares - that fear is driven by the most extreme possible imaginations of what might happen. So not a good start. Blunkett then goes on to explain that the people's fear is increased by the press and the 24 x 7 society, i.e. people think there's more to be afraid of than there actually is (we presume this is the logic) but that he needs to react to this false level of fear anyway. No, we don't know why either:
"It it's greater because of rapid economic and social change, including globalisation... it's greater because we see things now, across the world, because of instant, er, satellite. er, television, that we never did immediately before. We have seven day week, twenty four hour, instant communication, all of this underpinned by a changing culture, a lack of respect, the inability of parents to parent properly, the binge drinking that is a phenomenon... [he's clearly starting to lose it big-time here - is he describing the huge pile of things the people fear, ones he fears, or both?] ...Well people do not open their hearts, and minds, and hear messages, particularly Progressive messages if, underpinning that, subliminally, is a fear of what's happening around them, and if they're more insecure when they go out, and they walk on the street, if they fear, because of the eleventh of September, and its aftermath, what is happening in terms of the, er, the new forms of threat, from outside, then we have to provide that stability and security, if they're going to be able to the messages about opening your hearts and minds to other, about reducing the fear of difference, about being able to create a civilised and caring and compassionate society."
And of course the solution to this bizarre, ragbag collection of fears is the "verifiable identity, rather than someone being able to steal, and multiply your identity so, instead of a muddled system which can be, er, easily, er, flawed, and can be easily duplicated, we're creating something where we'll know who's in the country, who's entitled to draw down on, what are the only free services of their type in the world, including the NHS, er, we'll be able to ensure that those who are here, can work legitimately, legally, pay taxes..." The link between the miscellaneous collection of terrors and the ID scheme magic bullet panacea is, as usual, entirely unclear, but somewhere inside the mind of David Blunkett it presumably makes sense that possession of an ID card will improve your parenting standards and induce you to drink more sensibly.
His introduction of a link between the ID scheme and anti-social behaviour however indicates that he sees the potential uses of the scheme as very wide-ranging. Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) are being pushed by Blunkett as a cure for "noisy neighbours, abandoned cars, vandalism, graffiti, litter and youth nuisance", and the only thing we can deduce here is that he envisages the ID scheme being used in order to enforce such orders - via police ID checks?
He then weirdly seems to associate Liberal Party leader Charles Kennedy and Home Affairs spokesman Mark Oaten with "those who would actually destroy [liberty and freedom] from within" (check the Spyblog transcript yourself - it's just about possible to guess what he might have meant, but it's tough). then launches into an interesting explanation of why Alvaro Gil-Robles, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, should be ignored: "I met him, on Thursday, he says the same about my measures on Anti-Social Behavior and last night I attended two Community Meetings, in which people were asking for even greater power. and were rejoicing in the powers we had given the Police, so, he has a particular view, but we have a view from a situation where we want to prevent and protect our people, from any incident that would change the political climate".
This says a great deal about the way policy is decided in Blunkett's Home Office and on a wider scale by the Blair Government. In this specific instance Blunkett is putting forward the views of "two Community Meetings" as being of sufficient importance for him to ignore the views of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner, and is taking no account of the fact that the views of these groups will have been skewed because of local factors. What they feel is good for them is not necessarily going to be good either for the country as a whole or for human rights in general, and one of the prime responsibilities of a Home Secretary ought to be to balance the needs of local communities with those of society as whole, and to assess the viability of proposed measures, as opposed to just turning up the heat in response to what Blunkett sees as 'what the people want.'
More broadly, the stakeholder culture as deployed by the Home Office is perverting and undermining democracy. The recent ID scheme "consultation" document discounted the actual consultation response on the basis that the people who respond are the ones most likely to object (which is like saying you lost an election because the people who agreed with you didn't vote), but introduced skewed surveys and focus groups as the mechanism for uncovering what the public 'really' thinks. Blunkett's use of the Progress conference allowed him to show his wares to another 'stakeholder' group, while the consultation document itself listed other key stakeholders who had been blessed with keynotes and explanations from David himself and from Katherine Courtney, director of the Home Office's ID card programme. A swift Google of Katherine Courtney + Home Office + keynote should give you a fair picture of the kind of things the Home Office has been up to recently in terms of selling the ID scheme. Note how many interested vendors get talked to.
You'll find quite a lot of paid-for industry conferences where vested interests can be 'consulted and informed', but you won't find a lot of talking to the electorate. They're the ones who turn out not to know anything about the ID scheme when you survey them or put them in a focus group. And there's another such event tomorrow (17th November). This, as explained here, is a closed, paid-for event where Blunkett can conduct the debate on his own terms, before a collection of wonks. No2ID will be mounting a demonstration to coincide with Blunkett's arrival at the conference, anticipated as being around 9.30am at the Royal Society, Carlton House Terrace, London SW1. ®
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