Blunkett swaps ID snooping for privacy

The political godfather of the UK's Identity Card Scheme has declared a "partial conversion" from latter-day Big Brother to privacy campaigner.

David Blunkett, the Labour MP who earned his authoritarian stripes as Home Secretary at the home front of the war on terror, came out at a party held at the Law Society on Thursday night in honour of Privacy International's 20th anniversary.

"I am at least partly converted because there are very few politicians who have experienced so much intrusion into their private lives as I have, in all sorts of ways - electronic, visual and personal," said Blunkett, who was hounded out ministerial office twice over scandals involving money and sex.

Blunkett proposed schooling children to "protect themselves from intrusion by the state" and from the private companies. He warned, nine years on from his jibe at "airy-fairy liberals", that the state was making further encroachments on people's liberties over which people needed to have "greater vigilance".

He reminded the audience how he braved the political limelight again last year in order to speak out against the government's Interception Modernisation Programme, which proposed recording the internet communications of everyone in the country.

He also expressed regret over his decision as Home Secretary to grant police the power to collect the DNA of children above the age of 10, and vague regret over the extent of the surveillance powers he pushed through parliament with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Pull the other one

The audience of privacy advocates, civil servants and academics was sceptical. Blunkett, who voted in 2008 to lock foreign terrorist suspects up when police didn't have enough evidence to bring charges, repeated his support for ID cards and the biometric passports database off which they will operate.

He drew some heckles. But there were hopeful murmurs afterwards that Blunkett's coming out before this most distinguished of collection of privacy wonks was a sign that his wisened hand might hold the standard they could rally round when, it was assumed, Labour lost the next election and a Conservative government failed to deliver on its libertarian promise.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, took to the same stand and showed the wild card he intended to play if a hung parliament gives him the balance of power in the next election. It was unequivocally and passionately what the audience wanted to hear, if a little short on detail.

He declared vaguely he was "against the database". But promised to return with some more specific promises.

If he really was in tune with his audience, then his policy ideas will be similarly defiant to those of Germany, which were a subject of some admiring remark over the canapés. Germany recently outlawed the retention of internet communications data, while the German people carry identity cards with biometrics that are not stored on a central, government database.

Proportionality, as its called in the Data Protection Act, was what the privacy campaigners admired in the German answer to technocracy.

Tyrannical legacy

There was cause for hope when Clegg explained the source of his "delight" at Blunkett's "partial conversion" from "tub-thumping authoritarian" to the cause of privacy.

Clegg's mother had spent her early years in a Japanese concentration camp. His father's family had fled Soviet oppression. His great grandparents had lost their lives in their flight across Nazi-ravaged Europe. But his grandparents had made it to Britain, the spiritual home of those who like the Clegg's, said Clegg, dreamt of liberty.

"There was something about Britain," he said, "which embodied good sense and balance about the relationship between the individual and the state.

It was a nation, "that wasn't so susceptible to extremes, and to extreme abuses of liberty, as had occurred in other parts of Europe". And there Clegg made the issue the one on which not just the country, but his forebears will judge him.