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The Blair we left behind

So, he's gone, or almost.

Ten years is a long time for anyone to remain in power. Blair hasn't quite made it as long as Margaret Thatcher did, but by virtue of the UK's different ways in electing the people who fill its top office it's longer than either Reagan or Bush II. There are children who don't remember what it was like to have the Conservatives in power. And so on.

What's startling in reading the reviews is that although at least some of them do point out how unpopular Blair has been in recent years and point the finger squarely at his policies on Iraq, they generally tend to praise the state in which he's left Britain. What none of these seem to mention is the significant erosion of civil liberties under Blair's time in office. The Britain he leaves is considerably less democratic than the one he inherited.

The most obvious symptom of this is the national ID card, whose acknowledged cost has now reached the £6 billion the LSE report (PDF) predicted – with, no doubt, considerably more to come. The project may yet founder under the weight of its own technological aspirations. But it seems to have been designed to be maximally privacy invasive. Blair also selected as the card's champions first Jack Straw (who used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to attack those of us who were key escrow); then David Blunkett, who essentially became addicted to the idea; and then Charles Clarke…all, we suppose, in the intersets of proving that Labour was tougher on crime than the Conservatives.

The justification for implementing the card – and the massive databases behind it – has changed over the five years since it was first proposed, but the desire to do it has not. With or without the ID card, Blair leaves behind biometrics in passports – but that we can blame on the International Civil Aeronautics Organization.

Blair talked about making Britain a leader in ecommerce. But first we had lengthy wrangles over key escrow, which eventually even Blair admitted was a mistake, and then we had the achingly slow growth of broadband.

We also had the passage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act in 2000, and the Anti-terrorism, Crime, and Security Act in 2001, the latter passed with unseemly haste after 9/11. Taken together, the two provide law enforcement and the security services with the right to intercept communications or demand data retention, which itself has been the subject of another very long battle. ISPs have universally argued against it; Blair's government has refused to listen.

Yes, Blair's government brought in a Freedom of Information Act – but its availability keeps narrowing. The latest: Blair refuses to condemn proposals to exempt Parliament from it. These are our public servants. Supposedly.

Blair was also for involving faith organizations in policy-making and supported faith schools.

There have also been hotly disputed changes to legislation such as the Police and Criminal Evidence act (1984, revised 2003, and being reviewed again right now – comments to the consultation are due May 31).

During Blair's time in office the right to silence was diluted. You have the right to remain silent under arrest and questioning, to be sure, but if you do the judge and jury at your eventual trial are allowed to infer guilt from your silence.

During Blair's time, CCTV cameras have proliferated everywhere, making Londoners likely to be captured upwards of 200 times a day on camera. This government brought in anti-social behaviour orders, which opponents argue can easily be abused.

And so on, without a clear idea whether any of it is effective (PDF).

But probably the most insidious legacy Blair leaves behind is an important change in the way legislation and policy are enacted. Much new legislation – RIPA and ATCS are cases in point – is now drafted with the details left for secondary legislation that does not require a return to Parliamentary debate. The impact of legislation may be very different depending on how those details are laid out, and removing them from the debate bypasses the democratic process.

The second, the way policy is devised, is a game many countries now play: policy laundering. The game goes something like this. The US wants, say, biometrics in passports, and the UK likes the idea, too. The UK proposes it and when people object the government says, no choice, gotta have it, or the US won't let Brits into their country. When this gets old, they get the idea adopted by, say, ICAO – and thereafter they can say, no choice, it is an international standard mandated by this authority and agreed upon by all these other countries.

Of course these initiatives are not solely Blair's ideas; these proposals are showing up everywhere. But isn't the point of a good leader to resist bad ideas?

Blair was a nominee for "Worst Public Official" in Privacy International's global Big Brother awards. You can argue some geocentrism there, since PI is based in London. Still, here's what they said his credentials were: "his relentless work over ten years to expand the UK into the greatest surveillance society amongst democratic nations".

It's the "democratic" that gets you. There are plenty of countries whose leaders make Blair look like a moderate. But most of them, that's what you expect.

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, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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