The inevitability of New Labour's database state

Anthony Barnett, the founder of openDemocracy, has published an inspiring, fascinating analysis of the state of UK politics on New Statesman. Everyone should read it. Barnett goes back to the 80s to answer the question "New Labour - what went wrong?" in a dazzling summary of the forces at work in party politics over the last two decades. He pulls no punches in describing the authoritarianism of the Blair/Brown/Mandelson triumvirate; Cameron fares no better in a devastating critique of the failed two-party system.

Here's the opening of his analysis of Brown's civil liberties record:

But below the radar, and from early in the New Labour years, he and Blair initiated an audacious and sustained "transformation of government". Its ample official documents, never debated by parliament, set out to restructure the relationship between the state, citizens and business. It is a programme for a "database state" in which government departments can transfer information on citizens without them knowing, where surveillance is ubiquitous and government becomes the corporate deliverer of Britain's inhabitants to the marketplace. The "DBS", as it is cheerfully known, presents a novel and formidable challenge. A supporter recently told me that the database state is "inevitable and desirable. What we need are strong rights within it, iron-clad privacy within a context of the DBS."

But there cannot be "iron-clad privacy" within its context. That is the whole point. And I was struck by the combination of the "inevitable" and the "desirable", of fate and enthusiasm, the coin of New Labour from the start, merging delight in power with historical inevitability.

We are entering a new kind of constitution, one overseen not by judges, but by the Association of Chief Police Officers, organised as a private company outside the reach of Freedom of Information. The state that results can penetrate our daily lives at will without a warrant, log our movements, demand to know our intentions when we travel and compile, as with the DNA database, police records that imply guilt irrespective of charges, let alone a verdict.

Central to this redefinition of what it will mean to be British is the National Identity Register, with the ID card as its visible expression. This is not a card that permits us to claim our rights as with a passport, which was meant, as the name itself records, to be a laissez-passer, a right to travel. The UK identity card is closer to the electronic tag worn by criminals allowed out on probation. It belongs to the state and will entail an obligation to keep it informed and updated as the state manages our identity for us. Should it become compulsory, it will mark our subordination to the electronic leviathan.

Barnett follows with an exhilirating proposal for rebellion at the next election, a national effort to bring opposition and debate back into politics and shake up a corrupt system. The commentary is so spot-on, and the prose so succinct, that it offers a continual series of "lightbulb moments" where you realised he has just brilliantly argued and expressed something which you have felt to be true for years.

Go on, make a cup of tea, give yourself ten minutes and read it now.

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