Of all the arguments that this government has put up to justify their attempted smash-and-grab raid on the natural rights of us all, the most wrong-headed, spurious and downright pernicious is perhaps the claim that “if you’ve done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to fear”.
To someone who has an absolute trusting faith in the state, this is true. Entrusting a perfect state, which both never did anything wrong and also never did anything with their data that a reasonable citizen might wish to disagree with, is one thing.
But this is of course not exactly what’s an offer, what with us living with a state apparatus that not many of us would regard as perfect, and reasonable people taking different views on things.
What is being, slowly, forced on us, is entrusting pretty much all our personal information to someone else. And although the nature of our relationship with the state is rather different to, say, deciding whether we want to give our phone number out to some random person we’ve just met, or allowing someone access to our personal details on Facebook, at root it is the same. Before you give any information about yourself to someone, you ask yourself: do you trust them?
And what I think makes my run a bit cold is that it simply does not occur to most people who utter this phrase – at least some of whom are sensible and relatively alert human beings – that it is only true if one has pure, unquestioning faith in the apparatus of the state. If you put to such people - Ministers, for example - the proposition that the state could do no wrong – well, if it is were in public they would deny that they think such a thing, and if it were in private, they would surely just giggle. It is not a claim that, put in those terms, almost anyone I know would seek to defend.
But yet this phrase is trotted out as some kind of reassurance that if you’re not a criminal – you’re just a normal person – then you have nothing to fear in giving your information to the state.
And this is the second aspect of its use that makes every alarm bell in my body ring. For in the armoury of governments that start off meaning well but end up falling into totalitarianism, in the drawer just next to collecting huge amounts of personal information about their citizens, is dividing off, bit by bit, one section of society from another. This government is already well down this route in exploiting this supremely cynical tactic, in the way it is implementing ID cards. Throwing off casually to one side one of the hardest-won rights of a free society, living under the rule of law, that the law applies to all equally, they are introducing this category by category.
And of course they start by imposing it on all the unpopular groups of people – foreigners, students, people without an effective voice – basically, every group demonised by the Daily Mail. Yes, Prime Minister called this tactic “salami slicing”. Pastor Martin Niemöller made the same point in his famous lines about the way in which German society was picked apart in the 1930s, group by group. I am not, before someone accuses me of it, saying that this government has the same intentions as that regime. But the tactic is absolutely the same: imposing an unpopular view by “dividing and ruling” may be – despite its extreme cynicism – a powerful way of a government achieving its way, and therefore in a way unsurprising. But even leaving aside what it tells us about this government that it is prepared to employ such tactics to achieve its aims – in a democratic society that does not oblige us all simply to roll over and accept it.
If you believe that you are innocent, that you have “done nothing wrong”, and you are completely confident in every respect in your government, then you might feel tempted to accept this argument.
But even if you are, you shouldn’t accept it. Because you should be worried about protecting not only your own rights but those of your fellow-citizens, some of them perhaps with more non-standard or complex lives than you.
The use of this phrase is the very opposite of reassurance that if you are just a normal person then you have nothing to fear – because it can only be said either by someone who has no idea what they’re saying, or by someone who believes that we can never have anything to fear from any one of the millions of individuals who might ever have their fingers on one of the levers of the state.
Even the supremely innocent person - let alone the rest of us - DOES have something to fear from the government taking all their information