It is now much clearer, after the conference speeches of George Osborne and David Cameron, what the direction of a Conservative government will be. The surveillance state will not be the only part of the state put into reverse, the state as such will reversed. We are back, more or less, with Margaret Thatcher. For the new/old conservatives, big things are bad things if you are talking about government, especially a big public sector borrowing requirement. Big inheritances, though, are a good thing. But Cameron has softened the Thatcherite approach. He does not deny society exists. He wants to mend our “broken” society. He wants more personal responsibility. He is attempting to create a solidarity contract from the centre right.
What does this mean for the Conservative approach to personal information issues?
The proposal to remove large databases always raised issues about the continuing functionality of the organisations that deployed them. Now we can expect those organisations to be severely cut as well. Whitehall is to be cut by one third over the period of the next parliament. Front line services will not be cut, but the front line relies on the Whitehall backup. Where, in any case, is a big database located? And what will replace them?
It is exceptionally difficult for organisations to innovate while undergoing the sort of cuts planned by the Conservatives, and I doubt that Whitehall will be able to get anywhere near innovation, given the complexity of central government, the technological dumbness, and the demoralisation and resource stress which will come with the cuts. The temptation to hang on to existing information management systems will be very considerable, simply to maintain normal service, once the trophy items like the NIR have been disposed of.
As far as one can see, the Conservatives have almost no ideas about information modernisation, or about a smaller but modernised state. There are proposals to push power away from the centre, to give individuals more control, but what does that mean in personal information terms, and how could it be achieved in the probable circumstances? It doesn’t add up.
I watched quite a lot of the Conservative party conference, while nursing a bad (big) cold, including the speech by Dominic Grieve ( who said nothing about information issues), and by Pauline Neville-Jones, who mentioned reversing the surveillance state in passing. It was David Cameron’s speech which set the stage for an overt return to small government, which I mentioned in my previous post as more of a hidden tendency. Well, hidden no longer. And not good for 21st century privacy either.