David Cameron on "Today" Programme

David Cameron took the 08:10 “politics” slot on the Today programme this morning, interviewed by Sarah Montague about the budget, the economy and what the Conservatives would do about the deficit unveiled by Mr Darling on Wednesday. Actually, I should put it more strongly than that: ‘interviewed about what the Conservatives will do…”. It’s an interesting sub-current of the media coverage I’ve seen/heard since the budget, that it is universally based on an assumption that whatever Messrs. Brown and Darling are doing now will, after the next election, no longer be Labour’s problem to sort out.

Asked to give some specific examples of areas in which he would cut public spending, Cameron’s answer was revealing. Without hesitation, he singled out those areas in which there is an “extension of government”; his first two examples were the National ID Scheme and the ContactPoint directory. Returning to the topic a few moments later, he added the NHS’ National Patient Record database. I find this interesting in three respects.

First, he was being asked about cost-cutting measures – so on the economic level, it’s clear that he sees these as programmes which should not now be funded from the public purse;

Second, behind the economic rationale, there’s clearly an ideological motive based on rolling back the ‘extension of government’;

Third, politicians don’t like to admit to cuts in public expenditure unless they are pretty sure that the things they want to cut are sufficiently unpopular with the electorate. The fact that he singled out three projects which are often characterised as elements of the “database state” is, I think, significant. It suggests he thinks there is a public sentiment to tap into which – for whatever reason – does not favour these kinds of system.

So, what might lie behind this perception? Are the public for or against things like the ID Card scheme? Well, a quick and un-scientific internet search returns the following data points:

  • 2002: “four out of five people are in favour of a biometric identity card” (Home Office)
  • 2003: “more than 5000 out of 7000 responses to a public consultation were against the scheme” (Home Office response to parliamentary question)
  • 2004: 48% against, 31% in favour (Privacy International)
  • 2005: 66% against a £6bn scheme (YouGov, Telegraph, before London Bombings)
  • 2005: 42% against, 45% in favour (No2ID, after London 7/7 Bombings)
  • 2008: 48% against, 43% in favour (YouGov)

If one can draw any conclusions from this, they are probably as follows:

  1. It depends how you ask the question. (Questions relating each option to a specific cost seem to produce much less equivocal results – the higher the financial cost, the lower the approval rating);
  2. It depends how you count the results. (The “>5000/7000 negative responses” were apparently discounted by the policymakers because over 4000 of them came via a single campaigning website…);
  3. It depends how reliable you think people’s responses are. (Privacy International, for instance, has consistently maintained that the public are not in a position to make an informed decision, notably because possible harm from a comprehensive life-long audit trail is not accounted for in the available information about the scheme);
  4. Public opinion is swayed by public events. (Support appeared to increase in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, despite the then Home Secretary’s admission that an ID card had not stopped the Madrid bombings and would not have prevented the London ones; support appears to have been eroded by successive public sector data breach revelations).

It’s a huge topic. I can recommend two papers which give a fascinating look at the connections between public perception, press coverage and policy in this area. Here are links to both:

Media and Public Perceptions of Identity Cards, Privacy and Surveillance“; Dr. Edgar Whitley, LSE, December 2008

ID Cards – A snapshot of the debate in the UK press“; Elisa Pieri, University of Manchester, April 2009