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All those in favour say “aye”

If something sounds too good to be true then it is most likely untrue but if something sounds too bad to be true you can probably take it to the bank.

If there is anything axiomatic about that proposition then perhaps I should claim proprietory rights on it and call it ‘Carr’s Law’ or something. I am not sure how much use this law will prove to be on a practical day-to-day basis but it may oblige as a useful yardstick against which to measure my natural cynicism about opinion polls, surveys and related statistical exercises.

For example, take this one, published last month:

David Blunkett has pledged to push ahead with ID card legislation after an opinion poll said most people would be happy to carry one.

The MORI survey was commissioned by an IT consultancy which has worked on projects with the government.

It revealed 80% of those questioned backed a national ID card scheme, echoing findings from previous polls.

And published yesterday:

Most people would support closing a legal loophole that allows parents to smack their children, says a survey.

A total of 71% of people would favour such a ban, according to a survey commissioned by the Children are Unbeatable! Alliance.

And published today:

A majority of British adults favour a total ban on smoking in public places, a survey suggests.

A poll of more than 1,500 people by market analysts Mintel found 52% support for a ban, including two-thirds of non-smokers.

Despite my ingrained reluctance to pay these wretched surveys even a jot of heed, I do accept that a sufficient number of such polling exercises (if conducted scientifically and honestly) can, correctly identify a trend if not quite reveal great truths. Assuming that some objective methodology has been employed in the gathering and analysis of the above data, then the polls paint a picture which is clear but, from my point of view as a classical liberal, bitterly depressing. In other words, and applying my own axiom as set out above, it all sounds too bad to be true and is, therefore, probably true.

Typically, that would be just about all I have to say on the matter. I would offer it up as just another product of the Samizdata Moan and Groan Factory, designed and hand-crafted specially to ruin your day.

But that is far from all I wish to say because none of the above seems to tally with what might reasonably be regarded as the definitive political phenomenon of this decade: vote apathy.

By every standard that is not open to interpretation, participation and interest in politics (especially electoral politics) is in free-fall decline. Wheareas they could once have been counted in the millions, the membership rolls of both Labour and Conservative Parties combined barely nudges the 500,000 mark. Voter turnout drops lower with each passing election and, in terms of popularity and respect, politicians themselves rank somewhere between tele-salesmen and kidney stones.

The Great Public Disconnect is the talk of the town and the very real prospect of the next election producing a landslide win for the ‘None of the Above’ Party is already sending the political and media classes into a funk.

So what is actually going on here? The public no longer cares for politics in any shape or form yet they appear to be hungry for ever-more state intervention in and micro-management of their lives. Could it be (oh horror of horrors!) that the yawning disillusion of a fed-up and alienated public is the not the product of frustration with an government that nannies and regulates too much but an expression of disappointment due to the perception that the government does not regulate and nanny sufficiently?

On the other hand, I must temper my concerns with other concerns about the accuracy of these monotonously gloomy surveys. This is not just because of the appeal to the crude majoritarianism which passes for discourse in this country but because opinion polls of the political kind are not (and never have been) mere objective exercises. They are a form of propganda and are shamelessly wielded as such in a “resistance-is-futile” method of undermining opposition to favoured agendas.

Is it merely coincidence then, that these apparent ‘huge majorities’ all appear to be roundly supportive of every Big Brother/Nanny State project currently under construction? Or, to put it another way, for the project managers, are these results too good to be true?

We can but hope that my axiom holds water in that regard.

Cross-posted to White Rose.

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17 comments to All those in favour say “aye”

  • GCooper

    In what I like to believe is a case of “me experimenting on them” as opposed to the other way around, I’ve registered with the much-vaunted yougov polling mob and regularly receive requests to fill in some of their footling forms.

    And ‘footling’ is just one word starting with an ‘f’ that I might have used.

    Recently, I have received two requests for polling responses about the forthcoming London elections, both so clearly and obviously designed by Ken Livingstone’s apparatchiks that I was tempted simply to print them out, scrawl “piss-off Ken” on the bottom and mail them direct to the newt-fancier, instead of responding to yougov.

    Most polls strike me as fraudulent. They’re fakes. They set out to get the answer their sponsor requires and provide a line that the Abigails and Belindas in the Mayfair PR agencies can massage into a headline, which the editorially corrupt Press and broadcasting organsations can cut and paste into a story.

    It’s a game. But, sadly, one that is often being played against us by some very devious people.

  • Julian Morrison

    I wouldn’t let it ruin your day. If the public were as interventionist as your fears suggest, they’d have been voting libdem in droves (since libdem is currently nannyward of Nader, and accelerating).

    The fact that these were surveys biases things right off the bat – the true passive-anarchist would turn away the survey-takers!

    I think what you’re getting here is the cri-de-coeur of despairing interventionists, who see it all going wrong and wish for somebody to wave a magic wand and make it all work, somehow. They’ve tried voting for this and voting for that, they backed the sovs and they went soft, they backed Blair but he hasn’t changed anything. Every truly socialist government they fall for turns into a dictatorship. They’ve marched, and got nothing but blisters. So now they answer surveys.

  • Verity

    Julian – That sounds comforting, but you fail to note that all these surveys are designed for a purpose, and after the [desired] results are in, they will be used as tools to further that purpose. So there will a law forbidding parents to give their children a slap on the back of the legs, because “most people” regard that as child abuse.

    ID cards will be imposed on the public because “most people” think they’re a good idea and will somehow be efficacious against terrorism. Smoking will be banned in all public places because “surveys show” that most people would support such a ban.

    These surveys aren’t amusing or harmless.

  • On ID cards: What’s the big deal? Driver’s licenses are already de facto ID cards, at least here in the States.

    On corporal punishment: That’s not good. And, if the British government is anything like the American government, you have something akin to our Department of Social Services which can take your kids away from you if they even *suspect* you’re being “abusive.”

    On smoking: I can understand this one. Cigarette smoke is obnoxious–it *stinks*. Forget the “health” issues. Of course, it’s none of the government’s business–but when has *that* ever stopped the government?

  • Julian Morrison

    I think “big deal” about ID cards too, but not because I support them. I expect them to be introduced – then embarassingly withdrawn in a process much like that which happened with the poll-tax. An ID system can only take so much vocal opting-out and pranking via counterfeits etc, plus high-profile martyrs, before it becomes a ridiculous joke.

    I don’t think the public’s any more taken in by these survey than most folks here. My guess is, most people assume all “convenient” statistics are cooked. It’s just another sort of advertising, which people nowadays are famously skilled at tuning out.

  • Guy Herbert

    ID cards–whats the problem? It cannot be repeated enough, or loud enough:


    Blog Jones, what you, and the British public, do not understand is that “ID cards” are the occasion for the entire British public to be fingerprinted and all their residential details registered on a central database, which is to be freely accessed by the police, secret services and tax authorities, and less freely by any number of others, and directly linked to the existing passport, driving licence and vehicle registration databases. Further, it is the transparent intention of the Home Office that the card–i.e. your file number–shall becomes the principal document required by all public departments and significant private institutions that you deal with in everyday life, so that everything on an individual or group of citizens may be readily retrieved.

    In practice there are huge technological problems, but not so huge as to prevent the system working more or less as intended to keep files on more or less everyone, more or less complete and upto date. The exercise is a much smarter, much subtler, much more dangerous, approach to the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness project: rather than big-bang brute-force data-mining of the existing muddled universe of records, the British state is consistently using a the guided evolution of a myriad of bureaucratic and regulatory constraints over a long period–20 years and counting–to encourage a relational database of all activity to emerge.

  • Jacob



    But why do you need a card to have a data base ?
    Doesn’t such a data base already exist ?
    If it doesn’t – why ? Is there anything that prevents government from creating such a DB ?
    Do you need an ID number to have a unique key ? Not at all. A name and a date of birth combined are a perfectly good key.

    Those who insist on introducing that highly visible and objectionable card and think that it will help track people are just idiots (big surprise).


    Sorry for the allcaps, but I can’t stress the importance of the “slippery slope” argument enough. Britain has got a long tradition of keeping the state at arm’s length. Unlike the continental Europe, where governments assume universal powers of “granting” positive rights (as opposed to only restricting negative rights, ie. “right to steal”), pre-EU Britain placed the individual first, government second.

    ID cards change everything. From the moment they are issued, you are obliged to carry it, obliged to prove your identity to any State representative, and it’s YOU who is serving the State, not the other way around.

  • Julian Taylor

    I do have a problem with these ‘miraculous’ figures in the current trend of opinion polls, which tend to overwhelmingly state support for the government’s position.

    When one actually looks at the MORI opnion polls, for example regarding the introduction of a national ID card system, I can’t help but notice that 1000 randomly selected target calls seems to be an awfully low number for such a serious issue, added to the fact that this doesn’t appear to me to show any conclusive majority support for the introduction of an ID card, apart from the one aspect one which everyone seemed to agree – the issue of identity theft

    Regarding centralisation of data, as Guy writes about above, I think we already have this in the UK. In 1992 I made the serious error of allowing an Australian friend to stay in my flat for several nights, only to discover he had stolen my credit cards, passport, driving licence and various other documents and then embarked on a fraud spree in my name.
    The police were able to prove my identity beyond all doubt from consultation with NCIS (National Criminal Information Service), which they told me links Inland Revenue, National Insurance Contributions Agency, NHS, the Police National Computer Service, HM Customs & Excise and various other government departments together. That would seem to me to be some form of centralisation of personal data.

  • Euan Gray

    Doesn’t such a data base already exist ?

    I am a British citizen. I don’t have an ID card, but I do have a National Health Service number, a National Insurance number, a driver number and a passport number. My medical records, details of my addresses, my jobs, salary earned and taxes paid, bank accounts, credit record, driving incidents, entries and exits from the country, my blood group, even my fingerprints (yes, I was a bad boy once in the past), all these things and more are already recorded by one or more government agencies. Various government agencies and ministries are permitted by law to exchange information they may hold on me.

    Yes, essentially the database does already exist. Maybe not on a single computer system, but all the data is there. Getting paranoid about the database is basically worrying about a difference of 10 minutes or 1 day to retrieve the data. Big deal indeed.

    I don’t support ID cards because I don’t see them as necessary or even useful. But I don’t think there are in reality any civil liberty implications, because the state ALREADY knows a lot about each of us, probably a lot more than most realise. Already, you are obliged by law to tell the state when you move house (drivers licence and vehicle registration, for example). Frankly it isn’t worth worrying about – it won’t do much if any harm to anyone, but nor will it actually achieve anything, and hence it is IMO a waste of time and effort.


  • S. Weasel

    The databases surely exist, but they’re (thank goodness) extremely poorly coordinated, at least in the US. Being divided into states helps enormously, because they often don’t trade information well.

    When those databases are effectively coordinated, watch out. We’re already seeing crossover in, for example, denying driver’s licenses to fathers who are behind on child support (ironic, since there’s a push in many states to issue driver’s licenses to illegal aliens).

    I dread this future. I’m no criminal, but I’m dreadful at paperwork.

  • atlas

    What fools people like Euan Gray are. The fact of HOW DIFFICULT is it to get at your data (i.e. the cost of access) is extremely important. Once the cost becomes trivial, the state will have total ‘at will’ access and nothing you do will escape effective scrutiny by any official who want to put you under the microscope. If you think they can do that now, all I can say is you clearly have no experience with government IT usage as it exists right now (I work in IT for a large UK QUANGO and used to work for the DTI, so I know of what I speak). If a central database of everything exists, Orwell’s vision becomes reality and halfwits such as some of the ovine commentators here will be telling us that we need not fear because, after all, Big Brother loves us and we have nothing to fear if we have nothing to hide. Some people are simply beyond stupidity if they trust the people who work with the force of the state behind them to have that amount of power over them.

  • Guy Herbert

    Currently it is pretty easy to obscure at least part of the trail if you (for example) give an inconsistent D.O.B., initials, form of address, as some of us paranoid ones have been doing since the 80s. (Not that I’m really paranoid, or I wouldn’t be posting openly or via a bt account.)

    Anyone who’s run a reasonably sized mail-order database understands how difficult tracking individuals can be without a fixed index number, consistently given, and how hard it is to manipulate people to give a useful reference. The brilliance of the card as an administrative tool, and political sucker-punch, is it provides the pretext for demanding and getting a valid index number for each transaction of each individual.

    The state in theory has some, not all, of this information available, now. In theory it has a lot of power to use it, too. However, in practice it is not readily available, nor likely to be coherent enough to be useable. Creating strong links–what’s really meant by “joined-up government”–would massively increase both the capacity for data-collection and the efficiency of its use. It would mark an increase in the practical power of the state like nothing we have ever seen.

    I know I will be scoffed at, but I’m going to say it anyway: This a change in the nature of state power in Britain much bigger than the Glorious Revolution, the Civil War, or the break with Rome. The most apt comparison is the Norman conquest.

  • Guy Herbert

    Reverting to the topic of the post (what do polls tell us?), the problem isn’t, pace Julian Morrison, sample sizes. The theory of interlocking quota samples is well-worked out and has been robustly tested under commercial conditions for years. The big interpretative difficulty for public policy issues is the sensitivity to the exact question asked and the context in which it is asked.

    “Which of these brands do you prefer?” doesn’t carry much scope for misunderstanding on either side, though it might easily be biassed by a desire to please or appear sophisticated. Likewise voter polls, where the questions are consistent, and polsters have learned to callibrate them for (self-/)deceptive answers.

  • Euan Gray

    I don’t trust them to operate any sort of over-arching control and monitoring system. Equally, however, I am not paranoid or convinced the government is out to spy on my every move, nor do I feel the need to wear a tinfoil hat to deflect this supposed desire on their part to monitor every aspect of my life, although I feel several around here probably do.

    I’m in the habit of carrying “papers” anyway – I spend a chunk of my working life in places where you do need to be registered and carry identification, so the habit sort of sticks, especially after you get caught out a couple of times. There, and likely here when/if it happens, it is much less of an inconvenience or intrusion than many here seem to suppose it would be. Yes, it’s a point of principle, I agree, but when all is said and done it really makes bugger all difference to anyone’s daily life unless they go out of their way to be awkward.

    If the state really wants to find out anything about me, it already can. If it can do it more easily in the future, so what? What are they going to use this facility for?


  • Guy Herbert

    I don’t think they know what it is for, other than administrative convenience and neatness; because it can be done; and because to the lawnorder-minded who make up the civil service and police that the system will be broken by criminals doesn’t occur. It is, as Peter Lilley has said, a solution looking for a problem. Guns don’t kill people… as they say.

    Yes, Special Branch are said occasionally to bully groups by pulling out someone’s file and reeling off the information to him in front if a witness or two. But as you say, EG, they can do this already.

    My guess is the first thing it will really be used for, if it gets through, is to stamp on the black economy hard, instead of just squeezing it as currently using the “money-laundering” regulations. White-van men and working girls will start to get tax demands, sent out on the TV license model. That would go down as a big plus within the bureaucratic system, and encourage more “solutions” to emerge.

  • Pham Nuwen

    It isn’t the card, the db, or the attitude IMHO. The problem with a national id card is the very serious security flaw they represent. It is a SINGLE KEY!!!! Basic security says that whenever you want something to be secure you should use multiple varied keys.

    With a National ID card all I have to do to steal your identity is forge/steal that one card. With the current system I would probably have to steal/forge 3 or more to be able to convincingly do it. That certainly complicates things.

    One of the major problems with current id cards IMHO is the amount of easily accessible data that is on them. Bank Cards aren’t too bad, but the average drivers license is a privacy nightmare. Most proposals for national id cards I’ve seen make the drivers license look tame in that regard.

    I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again. The only way I’m going to get a National ID card is when they issue me one in prison. I flatly refuse to let the state compromise my security in this fashion.