Mr Blunkett: his new plans for our liberties
Two new initiatives launched by our inimitable Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and his department, ever vigilant for opportunities to extend the power of the state at the expense of our liberties and privacy, deserve outraged protest, but seem unlikely to get it except from a handful of admirable organisations such as Civitas.
Perhaps the lesser of the two offences is the proposal for a ban on "incitement to religious hatredâ€?, to join our existing laws banning racial and gender discrimination. As the Home Office’s "consultationâ€? paper, “Strength in Diversity: Towards a Community Cohesion and Race Equality Strategy” (wonderful title!) proudly boasts,
We now have in place some of the most progressive antidiscrimination legislation in the world, including a duty on public bodies to promote race equality and protection against discrimination based on religion or belief in the workplace.
Now we shall be forced to think long and hard before making any criticism of religion â€“ any religion. This gag is to be forced into our mouths at the very time when we urgently need a frank and uninhibited public debate on the social and political implications of Islam, both "moderateâ€? and "extremistâ€?, in our country and in the world, and on the impact of all religious belief on our political life: witness the role of his "passionateâ€? Christian beliefs in reinforcing our prime minister’s deep conviction that he always does the right thing, notwithstanding all the irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Since the essence of religious commitment is adherence to a set of propositions for which there is no rational evidence, such deep conviction in a political leader poses real dangers for us all. A ban on incitement to religious hatred is made to sound innocuous by the inclusion of the obviously negative word "hatredâ€?, but how confident can we be that such a ban will not soon enough be used to muzzle all criticism or negative analysis of any religious practice or doctrine or its social consequences? It will be ironical if, for example, a ban generally assumed to be designed to protect the Muslim minority in Britain against abuse from non-Muslims comes to be used to bar Muslims themselves from denouncing those whom they regard as heretics or apostates from their own faith, along with other infidels.
Fortunately, the arguments against this pernicious proposal are cogently and eloquently set out in a "Note to the Home Secretaryâ€? by the Director of Civitas, available on the Web at http://www.civitas.org.uk/pubs/religiousHatred.php. In his Note, David Green quotes the splendid words of David Hume :
"We may observe, that, in all ages of the world, priests have been enemies to liberty; and it is certain, that this steady conduct of theirs must have been founded on fixed reasons of interest and ambition. Liberty of thinking, and of expressing our thoughts, is always fatal to priestly power, and to those pious frauds, on which it is commonly founded.
And Green concludes that:
For the sake of religion, democracy and the continuance of our tradition of tolerance, there should be no law against religious hatred. Priests, rabbis and imams should develop thick skins.
Amen to that, if you will pardon the expression!
(I am indebted to Iain Murray’s excellent and stimulating Blog, "The Edge of England’s Swordâ€?, for pointing me in the direction of the Civitas website and David Green’s paper just quoted: both obligatory reading. Mr Murray’s parting shot on this hits its mark:
"Blunkett’s new law would clearly violate the First Amendment of the US Constitution. I find that’s a pretty good guide to whether an idea is crazy or not…â€?)
But the second of Mr Blunkett’s latest jeux d’esprit is far more dangerous and objectionable even than his proposed gag on criticism of religion. In April 2004 he published a draft Identity Card Bill "for further discussionâ€?. The Bill and its accompanying commentary have attracted blistering criticism both from the Home Affairs Select Committee (which however seems rather weirdly to have regarded the lack of any proper costing of the proposed scheme, or of any cost-benefit analysis, as representing a much more significant defect in the Bill than its numerous illiberal and unconstitutional features), and even more pungently from the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, who has issued a statement on the objections to the proposed bill which is more harshly critical of formal government proposals than anything I can remember seeing from a person holding an official position, apart perhaps from the reports of successive Chief Inspectors of HM Prisons (also, incidentally, directed at the Home Office).
Mr Thomas points out that the identity card proposals would involve, among many other appalling things, setting up a national database containing extensive information on virtually every aspect of citizens’ affairs, all accessible to the government through the chip in the identity card; that a wide range of departments and official bodies will be able to access this information, with no restriction on one department’s ability to read information only of legitimate concern to another; that the Home Secretary will have the power to extend the list of departments and other bodies entitled to access the information; and that the citizen will himself have no right to see the information held on himself in the database and on his ID card, even to check whether it is accurate!
The following partial quotation from the Information Commissioner’s statement gives the flavour:
"I want to make it very clear to the public that this draft Bill is not just about an ID card, but an extensive national identity register and the creation of a national identity registration number. Each of these raise substantial data protection and personal privacy concerns in their own right. The introduction of a national identity register will lead to the creation of the most detailed population register in the UK.
"The lack of a clearly defined purpose for ID cards, including the continuing changes in focus causes concern. Further clarification is also needed regarding the nature and extent of the personal information which will be collected and retained, plus the reasons why such a large amount of information needs to be recorded as part of establishing an individual’s identity.
"I also have concerns in relation to the wide range of bodies who can view the record of what services individuals have used. This will enable the Government and others to build up a comprehensive picture of how we live our lives. However, individuals will not know which bodies have been accessing their personal information because the draft bill removes the right to see their own information. I have asked the Government to reinstate this fundamental data protection right.â€?
The Commissioner voices many other concerns as well, including the unacceptability of representing the identity card scheme as (initially, anyway) "voluntaryâ€?, while in practice making it compulsory for anyone applying for a driving licence or a passport. Not many of us left to make a choice, then.
These proposals look suspiciously like the latest example of an old and discredited strategy beloved of the Home Office: greedy for more power over our everyday lives, and spotting an opportunity to grab some more while we’re all obsessed with the danger from terrorism, they publish proposals containing 150 per cent of what they want, and in response to the ensuing storm of objections to virtually the entire package, they magnanimously, "in a spirit of compromiseâ€?, agree to abandon or modify a third of the more patently unacceptable proposals, leaving them with 100 per cent of what they originally set out to get. And when that happens, we may be sure that Mr Clive Soley MP ("it is important to note that Tony Blair is seen as an effective leader not least because he does take difficult decisionsâ€?), and a raft of other faithful New Labour loyalists, will welcome this helpful ‘concession’, acknowledge that it meets the strongest of their previous reservations and misgivings, and call on us all to support the resulting measure.
If the Home Secretary and his patron, the prime minister, had any self-respect, they would quickly and quietly drop the whole of this disgraceful and illiberal scheme before it sinks under the weight of such far-reaching objections by the relevant parliamentary Select Committee and from the government-appointed Information Commissioner, both of whom know what they are talking about. But Messrs Blair and Blunkett "passionately believeâ€? in the rightness of everything they think up for us, and it will be surprising if they can be forced off this dangerous road by any objections, however authoritative and fundamental.
 The ‘Strength in Diversity’ consultations are open until 17 September 2004. Responses can be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org
 The Home Office paper contains other remarkable boasts, too: e.g., "The Government is committed to eradicating racism, whether explicit or institutional, in all public institutions and organisations.â€?