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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 13:36 GMT 14:36 UK
Blunkett abandons Big Brother
Computer user
Fears that Big Brother would be watching

Home Secretary David Blunkett is developing a habit of apologising for his mistakes.

Only a few days ago he was doing it to the police for his much-opposed reform plans.

Home Secretary David Blunkett
Blunkett has repented
Now he is apologising for getting it wrong on his so-called snoopers' charter. But make no mistake, this is a comprehensive climbdown.

The home secretary appears to have been genuinely taken aback by the size and passion of the objections to his plans. He should not have been.

Big Brother

Ironically, it is this government in particular that should have known better than to try and introduce such policies.

Not because people expect a Labour administration to be promoting civil liberties not apparently restricting them - although they do.

But because it is already widely seen as authoritarian and illiberal regime and the plans for a "snoopers' charter" confirmed people's worst fears.

Here, they thought, was 1984's Big Brother come to pry into every nook and cranny of our private lives.

Mr Blunkett's climbdown - which he has tried to temper with his apology - may be a sign that ministers are finally beginning to understand how they are perceived in the wider world.

The fact that it was Mr Blunkett's own son, Hugh, who helped him come to this understanding may be seen as further proof of just how out of touch the government has become.

Identity cards

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular policy, people were once again simply not prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt. They feared the worst.

Specimen identity cards
Identity card row
The concerns of civil liberties groups probably date back to the controversy over the government's much heralded freedom of information laws.

Before it came to power, Labour gave the impression it was out to give Britain the sort of legislation existing in other countries, notably the USA, or even better.

And the first minister responsible for the policy, David Clarke, started down that road, only to be quickly replaced.

The final legislation, after much watering down in the home office, fell very far short of expectations.

Then there were the proposals to abandon jury trials in some court cases which prompted a fierce backlash.

There are persistent fears about plans to introduce national identity cards.

And even the prime minister's speech on the criminal justice system, which coincided with Mr Blunkett's climbdown, rasied new fears over issues such as the double jeopardy rule.

Public debate

And all this comes against the backdrop of a government with a reputation for being obsessed with control and intervention.

Mr Blunkett is now saying that he recognises the widespread public concern, even though he believes it is misplaced, and that it is time for a full debate about the issue.

He will be encouraging wide consultation over the control of the new technologies such as mobile phones and the internet, we are told.

And, as past experience with fox hunting and Lords reform has shown, that means extended delay and, more likely in this case, gradual abandonment.

This is not the sort of row Tony Blair wants to get embroiled in just at the moment.

He is having a rough enough time of it already without going out of his way to pick a fight with civil liberties groups and, more importantly for him, voters.

And this is one policy that can be easily abandoned until after the next general election.

See also:

18 Jun 02 | UK Politics
17 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
12 Jun 02 | UK Politics
11 Jun 02 | UK Politics
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