net.wars: Let us now praise famous Blunketts

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 December 2004

"The wit and wisdom of David Blunkett. A slim volume ... "

Wendy M Grossman

The folksinger Tom Paxton used to have a wonderful little song he sang in honour of Nixon administration vice-president Spiro T Agnew, widely characterized as the dimmest bulb that ever graced the Veep wing of the White House (and yet: I read that he had an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Johns Hopkins). He resigned after accusations of tax evasion.

Paxton's song goes: "I sing of Spiro Agnew, and all the things he's done ... " A majestic silence follows. Laughter.

I wish we could sing that song for David Blunkett, who is, as of December 15, Britain's former Home Secretary. Because, as I think it will turn out unfortunately, he has done a few things. Mostly, he's leaving us with the ID card bill poised for its second reading on Monday. Although the No2ID campaign is arguing that the bill's march to enactment should be paused due to Blunkett's resignation, his immediately named replacement, Charles Clarke, has already said he isn't even going to pause for breath. This is hardly surprising: Clarke in the past has made appearances at Privacy International's one-day conferences.

My enduring memory (which I have not been able to back up with stored notes) is his criticism aimed at us in the crowd, for starting to laugh - when he introduced what we call, after Timothy May, the "Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse" to justify the passage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill. We weren't laughing, as he waspishly suggested then, because we liked paedophiles. We were laughing because in that era every time anyone wanted to promote a privacy-invasive initiative, they would bring up paedophiles as an important reason to support it. Say anything often enough and it becomes funny.

Clarke has also twice been nominated for Big Brother awards. The first time, in 2000, he was nominated in the Worst Public Servant category for his championing of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. In July, 2004 he was runner-up for Lifetime Menace, based on his activities as Secretary of State for Education and Skills.

Looking him up on the ever-helpful TheyWorkForYou.com, we see that another reason for the UK to love him is that he got Blair's tuition fees bill passed.

But let's skip the nostalgic digression. The really sad thing is that Blunkett resigned over trivialities: his mistress, her nanny's visa, his openly acerbic comments about his Cabinet colleagues. It's so disappointing that we can't report that he resigned because too many people hated his policies. Blunkett was, after all, the champion not only of the ID card but of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security bill. He has presided over the data retention rules that threatened to open our electronic lives to every Tom, Dick, and parish warden.

Sadly, there is no evidence that Blunkett left for any but those most trivial reasons: Blair likes his policies and Clarke, as promised, didn't miss a beat in continuing with the Identity Cards bill, which had its second reading on Monday, December 20, only five days after Blunkett's final "He has my full support" from Tony Blair.

People may, when they have all the facts, come to hate Blunkett's policies. They may even - as No2ID hopes - turn out in droves to protest and block the ID card. No2ID's national coordinator, Phil Booth, told me this week that he thinks the ID card will eventually produce poll tax-sized protests that could do for Blair government what the poll tax eventually did for Thatcher. But people as in the general public aren't why politicians leave office outside an election. To be fair, policies on the part of both parties have favoured ID cards for some time. The exact identity of the minister in office is unlikely to have mattered (as Yes, Minister always made plain): Jack Straw, Clarke, or Blunkett, the bill probably would have been proposed just the same. From the moment the planes hit the towers on September 11, 2001, policies that had been rejected at other times were suddenly proposed and rushed through. ID cards, I'm convinced, appeal to two classes of people first and foremost: civil servants, who like everything numbered and classified and tidily arranged; and security services, who like control.

The central question now is whether enough people believe that Britain is a nation at war to accept the reality of what ID cards - and the real problem, their underlying database - are going to mean. Are people really going to accept having to make an appointment and stand on line to be fingerprinted and iris-scanned, digitally photographed, and interviewed? How long will it take per person to extract and verify the 51 (!) categories of information the bill lists as data that may be recorded? Finally, will people really be willing to pay to do all this?

I am, you may have noticed, assuming pessimistically that the bill will in fact pass. It won't necessarily pass with all its current provisions intact, but Blair has sufficient numbers - even after the startling 180 abstentions on Monday - to ram the bill through if he wants to, as he certainly seems to. I keep seeing newspaper articles suggesting that in Blunkett Blair has lost a vital element of his government. But it sure doesn't seem like it.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).