On a few occasions in recent years I have, to my surprise, found myself agreeing with Tony Blair. The man is talking sense, I’ve sometimes thought. Fair play.
When he suggested that Labour would remain unelectable as long as Jeremy Corbyn ran the show, I inwardly cheered. He even said before the 2019 election that he would struggle to vote for his old party.
I applauded several years ago when, to general astonishment, the man who had opened the floodgates to mass immigration as prime minister spoke of people’s ‘genuine anxieties’ on the issue, and of the need for governments to deal with their ‘legitimate concerns’.
Once or twice during the pandemic, the leader who misled this country into an illegal war in Iraq, and dispatched our troops to a hopeless quagmire in Afghanistan, made what I thought were useful contributions.
So it is with some relief that I once more find myself in disagreement with Mr Blair, who has co-authored a report with former Tory leader William Hague about how Britain should adapt in a rapidly changing world.
On a few occasions in recent years I have, to my surprise, found myself agreeing with Tony Blair. The man is talking sense, I’ve sometimes thought, writes Stephen Glover
Sir Tony Blair has joined ex-Tory leader William Hague in calling for the Government to introduce a digital ID that people can have on their phones. Sir Tony and Lord Hague, pictured during their time as prime minister and leader of the opposition, insisted that a ‘fundamental reshaping of the state around technology’ is needed
By no means all of the report — which is written in gobbledegook language peppered with acronyms, and full of endless ‘to do’ lists that make the head spin — is misguided.
One could hardly quarrel with their premise that Britain should be better prepared for a new scientific revolution. Proposals for improved education and more spending on Research and Development make sense.
Yet there is one suggestion so illiberal that one wouldn’t be surprised if it were the official policy of the Chinese Communist Party. It is both a mystery and a matter of regret that Mr Hague, who used to be a pretty sensible sort of chap, should have lent his name to the report.
It envisages a digital ID which everyone would have on their smartphone. This would incorporate people’s passports, driving licences, tax records, qualifications, right to work, and God knows what else. Almost everything known about you in one place.
Where does one start in attacking this terrifying idea? Well, I don’t like the assumption that everyone has, or should have, a smartphone. Some people find them bewildering and hard to cope with. Others don’t want to be dominated by a device that somehow sucks the life out of you.
A ‘National Identity Card’ for UK citizens began to be issued by Blair’s New Labour government in 2009 before the scheme was scrapped by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2010
But although far from unimportant, this is a relatively trivial objection when set alongside the sinister, Big Brotherish implications of what these two former politicians cheerily recommend.
Not many of us want to live in country whose government defines us in a single app, allowing officials to gain access to our personal details with one poke of the finger.
I accept there may be a reasonable case for a separate identity card of the sort people carried during the war and for some years afterwards, until it was abolished by a Conservative administration in 1952.
One argument is that they make it harder for illegal immigrants to find a job, and so act as a deterrent to illegal immigration. Perhaps, though several countries which operate ID cards are beset with migrants they haven’t welcomed.
When he was prime minister, of course, Tony Blair tried, and failed, to introduce identity cards. Here he is again, wholly unabashed — the difference being that this new proposal is more menacing because the prying State could be inside your smartphone within seconds, and find out far more about you than would be disclosed by an old-fashioned identity card.
My objections don’t simply concern civil liberties. Hackers would try to get hold of the treasure house of personal information conveniently concentrated in one place on the instructions of HMG.
Since the State’s record in setting up computerised systems has been pretty woeful, one could have little confidence in the security of a digital ID. Anatoly in Omsk and Li in Shanghai would discover almost everything about you in a trice.
Nor would I be surprised if government decided to flog off some of the information it had gathered about you. After all, the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency) has made tens of millions of pounds out of selling our personal details to third parties.
No, this is a thoroughly bad idea — illiberal and prone to abuse. The technologically advanced society for which Messrs Blair and Hague yearn would be one in which the State enjoyed unprecedented surveillance over our lives.
I’m not surprised that Tony Blair should be enthusiastic about such a draconian scheme. A man who has made tens of millions of pounds in the course of rubbing shoulders with dodgy potentates is unlikely to have very many qualms about extending State control.
But Mr Hague’s involvement does rather amaze me. He has come a long way from the 16-year-old boy who stood in front of a Tory Party conference in 1977, and teased delegates by saying that ‘half of you may not be here in 30 or 40 years’ time, but I will be and I want to be free’.
I like to remember the William Hague who, as Conservative leader, regularly got the better of Mr Blair during Prime Minister’s Questions, and fought the 2001 election in the colours of a Eurosceptic. That was before he became a conventional Foreign Secretary in David Cameron’s administration.
One of life’s natural outsiders has morphed into a member of the Establishment. I expect he has bumped into Tony Blair at one of those cosy jamborees in Davos or at a meeting of the secretive Bilderberg group, where the international great and the good decide what’s best for the common people.
In a way, it’s a pity the report has been disfigured by their proselytising of digital IDs. There are, as I say, a few good ideas about removing obstacles to economic growth, though unfortunately cutting taxes, which are at record levels, doesn’t make much of an appearance.
They rightly cite the ‘extensive bureaucracy [of] the British State’ and the ‘accountant’ mindset of the Treasury, which they believe stands in the way of growth. They equally rightly champion streamlining the planning system.
Yet there is a pervading sense of technocratic superiority which chimes with Mr Blair’s autocratic tendencies. For example, they suggest appointing ‘executive ministers’ to knock heads together in Whitehall. These people wouldn’t have to go to the bother of being members of the Commons or House of Lords.
Mr Blair said something revealing when he and Mr Hague were being interviewed on yesterday’s Today programme on Radio 4. He loftily dismissed politicians who obsess about ‘marginal differences in tax and spending’.
The multi-millionaire former prime minister now breathes the rarefied air of the Davos elite which thinks it knows what is best for us, and isn’t over concerned with democratic niceties.
And that is why Mr Blair feels able to champion digital ID. In his eyes, it makes government more efficient. If it threatens the liberties of ordinary people, that is a price worth paying.
I don’t agree. There may be a few good ideas in this ill-written report, but I’m more glad than ever that Tony Blair is part of history. The sadness is that William Hague, who once believed in freedom, should have joined forces with the man he once opposed.