It is not surprising that Philip Pullman and other authors are enraged at having to pay £64 for a licence to introduce schoolchildren to literature. The way the Government has gone about this is just another in the long line of examples of reaching for a database to solve a problem when this could easily do more harm then good. These databases are presented as being for the convenience of the citizen, when the overwhelming driver is the convenience of the state.
The relationship between the state and the individual is a permanent tension in politics. The danger is that using technology in this way moves the balance too far in favour of the state. Britain used to pride itself on the individual's ability to control his own live, but today our population is more spied upon and controlled than most other democracies. Some of the underlying freedoms which underpin Parliamentary democracy are being seriously eroded.
What is even more dangerous is that they are being eroded from the best of motives, by well-meaning people who would be hurt and horrified to be regarded as anti-democratic; many of them the most senior officials in this country, holding positions of great trust. Permanent Secretaries and police chiefs can be much more dangerous to British democracy than demagogues and extremist politicians. By collecting and sharing masses of private information either to provide the public services for which they are responsible or to try to spot future criminals, they are creating the database state.
This story illustrates a serious problem, which is that to prevent crime the police want information on the innocent, on the off-chance that they will one day commit a crime. For example they will be visiting a thousand addresses in Brighton before the Labour Party conference to check the identity of those living there, before cross-checking all of them with the police national computer.
The irony is that doing this makes the police's job more difficult in the long run, because making all of us potential suspects destroys the ability to police by consent, which has always been at the heart of effective British policing.
Just because technology has transformed the way Government can use personal information does not mean that a sensible government will take that choice. In all eras of technology, the principle that the state should serve the citizen and not vice versa is a good one. The bigger the capacity to collect and share information, the greater danger there is to privacy, and therefore to freedom. It is time for the freedom fighters of the world to fight back against the controlling state.
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