When Tony Blair talks about ID cards a shiver goes down Tory spines. His plan for a national ID card system was scrapped by the Coalition. Theresa May had the hard drives involved fed into a grinding machine in Essex. That didn’t stop him using promoting vaccine passports as a useful excuse to show off his pandemic haircut. Now he is back yet again to give his passion a digital sheen – and flanked by William Hague, of all people.
Has the former sinker of 14 pints of beer in a day swapped the Theakstons for his ex-rival’s ID Kool-Aid? The two have turned their hands to a paper for Blair’s Institute for Global Change, entitled A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain.
One of their leading proposals leading proposals is that we should all be designated a ‘digital ID’ on our mobile phones. They argue that – in an “entirely digital age” in which our mobile phones can order dinner, find a partner, or provide entertaining pictures of cats on Instagram – a digital ID could make it easier to offer tailored support for public services. The system would collate your passport, driving licence, tax records, and qualifications all in one place.
Naturally, this has gone down badly with enthusiasts for personal privacy. “Mandatory ID systems increase state control over individuals’ lives and rarely live up to the extraordinary benefits technocrats tend to attribute to them,” argues Big Brother Watch, calling the scheme “one of the biggest assaults on privacy ever seen in the UK”.
Ross Clark argues this is a step towards China’s Orwellian social credit system, where the state tracks its citizens and punishes them according to their behaviour. He also highlights the scheme’s practical problems. Do we really think the British state has become any more capable at doing big IT projects since Blair wasted £10 billion on a scrapped plan for digitising the NHS? This handy list of subsequent failures suggests not.
There’s also the basic problem that around a tenth of UK adults don’t own a smartphone. Any attempt to digitise our interactions with the state flounders on the lingering technophobia of parts of the population. Unless the Government intends for libertarians everywhere to buy a Nokia and go off grid, this proposal cannot be delivered.
But that doesn’t mean ID cards of one form or another are permanently off the table. Nick Timothy supports their use in deterring illegal immigration. South Korea and Taiwan were swifter to tackle the pandemic due to their national identity systems. Estonia’s government claims to have made 99 per cent of public services available through Bürokratt, its public sector AI, which reportedly saves 800 hundred years’ worth of working time a year. These sorts of ideas are not just going to fade away.
We should also remember just how authoritarian the average British voter is. John Wilkes would be horrified to see 57 per cent of voters supporting mandatory ID cards – and 61-63 per cent supporting them under the justification of crime or terrorism. Remember, Blair’s proposals for Covid passports were supported by most people in a variety of everyday settings. Voters were also tremendously enthusiastic to have the police enforcing lockdown measures. Who needs the CCP?
So should we give up the struggle and learn to love Big Brother? Not quite. Although it may have been their ‘digital ID’ idea that grabbed all the headlines, the proposal is actually quite a small part of Blair and Hague’s report. Rather than be a charter of exciting new ways to invade your privacy, it is more an attempt to respond to Dean Acheson’s allegation that Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role.
In short, it owes more to Dominic Cummings than George Orwell. The paper’s central argument is that the ongoing revolution in areas like AI and biotechnology are going to change our lives as significantly as the industrial revolution did. Whitehall machinery must adapt accordingly. A new British state must be forged in the white heat of this revolution.
Those of us cool enough to have spent our teenage years reading Cummings’ blog and Substack – chicks dig an ‘Odyssean Education’ – will be familiar with much of Blair and Hague’s diagnosis of where Britain is failing and their prescriptions for fixing it. The report blames the “accountant mindset” of the Treasury for micromanaging research and development (R&D) spending and failing to have an interest in longer-term investment in science and technology.
A new Office for Science and Technology Policy is proposed. Under the Prime Minister’s aegis, it would bring in external experts (in the Kate Bingham mould) to circumvent Whitehall procedures and deliver radical new policies. An Advanced Procurement Agency would find and implement public-sector innovation. Public R&D investment would be scaled up to make Britain a world leader. We would seek stronger global partnerships with the EU and US on technology standards and research programmes.
The end goal is a new “strategic state” that transcends old divisions of “left and right”. It will learn the lessons of the vaccine rollout – achieved outside traditional government structures – to prevent our stale and unimaginative bureaucracy from reimposing itself. Readers, it’s the Third Way for the Tik Tok generation.
Should we take any notice? Definitely. Whilst I’ve been no great fan of Blair’s efforts to reintroduce himself into political life, this report is a genuinely interesting attempt to identify and respond to long-term problems with the way we are governed. After 15 years of stagnant productivity growth, a pandemic where Whitehall’s traditional structures went into meltdown, and at a time when Amazon spends twice on R&D than we do, this is a welcome wake-up call.
But I suspect this report has been designed for an audience of one: Rishi Sunakl Hague’s successor as the MP for Richmond. The Prime Minister has just established a Department for Science, Technology, and Innovation. He funded Cummings’ Advanced Research and Invention Agency and forced the furlough scheme through Whitehall as Chancellor. Reading funky reports about research and development are his golf.
A year ago tomorrow, Sunak delivered his Mais lecture. It remains the best route for understanding his thinking. There, Sunak made it clear he believes the source of our sluggish growth is an unwillingness of our private enterprises and state to invest in R&D and capital spending to the same extent as our competitors. The Stanford graduate requires no lectures on how innovation can make somewhere richer.
The Prime Minister could do little worse than finding an hour or so to sit down with his two predecessors and discuss this report. He won’t have the time, space, or ability to deliver on most of their recommendations. But the overhaul of the British state was supposed to be the underlying mission of our post-2019 government. The pandemic has made it all the more necessary, but it has long been neglected.
Still, at least we might get pounds and ounces back. Right?