Every so often one finds a politician making a comment or statement in which something causes you to pause for a second and say to yourself, ‘just what, exactly, are they actually saying here?’
Such a statement can be found right at the beginning of Tony Blair’s recent attempt to sell ID cards to the readers of the Telegraph, which he opened with the following statement:
On any list of public concerns, illegal immigration, crime, terrorism and identity fraud would figure towards the top. In each, identity abuse is a crucial component.
All of which looks straightforward enough and nothing more than the usual govenrmental rhetoric of the day, until one looks a bit more closely and notice that he refers specifically to ‘identity abuse‘. What a curious turn of phrase - not identity theft or identity fraud, which one might expect, but identity abuse. What, one wonders, is it that he’s actually referring to in using that specific phrase and how, exactly and in what context, does one abuse identity?
Looking at Blair’s list of public ‘concerns’ (and disregarding the reference to identity fraud as a tautology) each of the three remaining issues; illegal immigration, crime and terrorism are certainly fields in which the fraudulant use of identity may feature. When one could say with certainty that it is a crucial component is somewhat more open to question.
One can certainly enter the UK illegally and subsist in UK society without the need to make use of a fradulent identity if one is prepared to avoid all normal ports of entry and make ones living in the ‘black economy’ - indentity is a factor in illegal immigration only if one seeks to seeks to enter the country by legal channels, albeit on the back of having provided false information, seeks to avail oneself of public services or employment opportunities, which require you to interact with the state or, of course, in seeking to evade capture and deportation but it does not follow that questions of identity will arise in all instances of illegal immigration.
The same can be said of crime. There are crimes in which identity is a factor and use of a false identity central to the crime itself, but many more in which is no particualr relevance at all, except in the context of evading the attentions of the police. And when one comes to consider the question of terrorism, the question one has to pose is that of which is actually the more important, the concealment of the identity of a putative terrorist or the concealment of their intent, preparations and activities?
False identities may, for example, help to facilitate activities that support and sustain terrorism, such as money laundering, but even there its questionable as to the extent to which such activities rely on the fraudulent use of personal identity as opposed to, for example, the fraudlent use of a business identity such as a ‘financial shell’ to conceal the nature of the transactions not the identity of those carrying out the transactions.
It is also the case, particularly in relation to illegal immigration and terrorismm where the putative terrorist is not a UK citizen, that while the individual(s) in question may have supplied a false identity to the UK authorities, the documentation provided in support of their claim to a particular identity may well be entirely genuine as a consequence of the primary fraud having been undertaken elsewhere, as happens where ‘false’ (as in innaccurate) but otherwise legitimately produced identity documents are obtained by way of the bribery of public officials.
For each of Blair’s non-tautological exemplers, the use of false or fradulent indentities may be a factor or they may not - none is entirely contingent on identity fraud in order to function noe, necessarily, sufficiently contingent on it to merit referencing it as a crucial component of such activities.
Can we infer, from any of this, precisely what Blair may have meant when he referred specifically to identity abuse? I think we can.
In referring to identity abuse, Blair is referring not simply or exclusively to the fraudulent use of identity but more globally to any situation in which an individual seeks to conceal their ‘true’ identity from the state irrespective of their reason or purpose in doing so. What this suggests, by direct inference, is the existance of a fundamental belief on Blair’s part that the state has an absolute and overarching right to know the full identity of each of its citizens and of any individual within its borders at all times and in all circumstances.
This, as should be obvious, is a fundamental inversion of the relationship between the state and its citizens; one in which the state ceases to derive its existance and authority from a social contract in which the citizen voluntarily cedes certain privileges and authorities to the states (such as monopoly on the use of force/violence within its bounds) in return for state acting to preserve the citizen’s rights, freedoms and liberties and affording the citizen a measure of security from external and internal threat and becomes, instead, a discrete entity in its own right with its own inalienable rights and entitlements outside of any social contract and derived from its very existance and from its ‘ownership’ of monopoly on the use of force/violence, which it may exercise irrespective of the wishes of its citizenry.
The former condition, in which the state is defined and bound by a social contract, is a hallmark of democracy, the latter of a feudal monarchy or totalitarian regime in which the state is exclusive tool of the ruling elite and not a servant of the people.
None of this should come as any particular surprise, as this view of state as an entity distinct from its citizenry has been a consistant sub-text of much of government policy in recent years and, indeed, animates the entire ‘rights -vs- responsibilities’ debate the the present government has sought to initiate and sustain on each and every occasion upon which events have conspired to afford them the opportunity.
In this 2005 article from the Guardian, Blair deploys what has been, for some time, one of his favourite canards, that of seeking to recast the parameters of the debate in terms of conflicting ‘liberties’ in which the state is portrayed as defending that which, in his opinion, is the most important.
But this is not a debate between those who value liberty and those who do not. It is an argument about the types of liberties that need to be protected given the changing nature of the crimes that violate them. And it is an attempt to protect the most fundamental liberty of all - freedom from harm by others.
In that same article, in which he defends the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders, Blair incorporates a reference to the supposed ‘balancing’ of citizens’ rights and responsbilities…
However, it wasn’t just a question of matching legal rights with legal responsibilities. It was about changing the legal processes by which such rights and responsibilities are determined.
This being a more or less direct reference to a programme of change first set out by Blair in 2002, in the following manner:
With these new opportunities come responsibility. The street crime initiative, for example, has been one of the most successful partnerships between government and the police in living memory. But the truth is people don’t feel more secure and they know the system is not yet working as it should. It has become inceasingly clear what the problem with the system is:
· A nineteenth-century criminal justice system trying to solve twenty-first-century crimes;
· Too little joined-up working between police, CPS and other agencies;
· Too little focus on the hard core of persistent offenders who commit more than half the crime;
· Court procedures that are cumbersome;
· Justice weighted towards the criminal and in need of rebalancing towards the victim;
· Police not freed up and given the flexibility to focus on the crime and antisocial behaviour;
· Punishment that often does not fit the severity of the crime.
So this autumn we will focus on tackling these problems. We are pursuing radical reform of the Criminal Justice System, tackling anti-social behaviour and restoring social cohesion to fragmented communities.
What makes these articles both interesting and revealing is, first, that Blair consciously recasts the duty of the state to afford its citizen’s a measure of security in terms of its being both a right and a fundamental liberty, rather than a contractual obligation from which the state derives, in part, its legitimacy, and second, in setting out the framework for what he calls ‘reponsibilities’, Blair set out a programme ciouched exclusively in terms of defining and augmenting the power of the state to enforce those ‘responsibilities’ on its citizenry, which, by extension, recasts these reponsibilities in the form of their being the citizen’s duties to the state and not the responsibilities of citizens towards each other, this being a particular nasty fiction promulgated by Blair on the back of complete misreading of Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’.* [see endnote]
In doing so, Blair is implicitly overturning the fundamental basis of the social contract, which far from being an arrangement between citizen and state entered into voluntarily and for the mutual benefit of both parties, has now become a coercive arrangement under which the state no longer derives legitimacy by means of preserving the rights and securing the liberties of its citizens and affording them a measure of security necessary to facilitate their unfettered enjoyment of both but rather offers protection to its subjects in return for the performance of certain duties of benefit to the state and for which the state will apply sanctions (and exercise its monopoly over the use of force/violence) should its subject seek to demur.
Britain may well possess all the trappings and outward signs of a democracy, but these do not serve the purpose for which they are intend, which is to periodically effect the renewal of the social contract and afford the state its legitimacy, rather they serve only to apply a thin veneer of respectability to what is, otherwise, little more than a large-scale protection racket, as can be seen most clearly, here, in his Telegraph article:
It was also very clear from last week’s arguments about surveillance and the DNA database that the public, when anyone bothers to ask them, are overwhelmingly behind CCTV being used to catch or deter hooligans, or DNA being used to track down those who have committed horrific crimes. And that’s what surveys suggest, too, about their position on ID cards.
ID cards, a DNA database, CCTV and the rapidly developing ‘database state’ being, of course, the price that Blair seeks to exact in return for the state’s protection.
By way of irony, Blair wrote to Berlin shortly before the latter’s death in 1997 in an effort to debate with Berlin both his ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ and more generally the way forward for ‘the left’ following the demise of Soviet-style state ’socialism’, and in his letter made the following observations.
The brief discussion in the interview of the relationship between your two concepts of liberty is, I think, illuminating. The limitations of negative liberty are what have motivated generations of people to work for positive liberty, whatever its depradations [sic] in the Soviet model. That determination to go beyond laissez-faire continues to motivate people today. And it is in that context that I would be interested in your views on the future of the Left.
As you say, the origins of the Left lie in opposition to arbitrary authority, intolerance and hierarchy. The values remain as strong as ever, but no longer have a ready made vehicle to take them forward.
Berlin was, sadly, too ill to reply and died shortly after receiving Blair’s letter, which was prompted by a reprint in Prospect of an interview given by Berlin to Stephen Lukes soem five years previous - a fact that Prospect neglected to mention at the time.
One cannot help but wonder, in the circumstances, quite waht Berlin might have made of Blair, both then and now, when it has become entirely apparent both that Blair has long since abandoned the values of opposition to arbitrary authority, intolerance and hierarchy that he professed, at the time, to be as strong as ever having sat for ten years at the apex of the British political hierarchy and become, in that time, the very epitome of arbitrary authority, and that Blair has entirely vindicated Berlin’s critique of ‘positive liberty’ in which he argued that it politically dangerous because it afforded the political elite a justification for curtailing the ‘negative liberties’ of citizen’s ‘for their own good’ by conducting himself in just such a fashion.