Monday 27 April 2009

ID cards on the rack?

Stephen Byers' call for the government to rethink the ID cards and Trident renewal programme, when he has been a supporter of both, may be a significant political straw in the wind, albeit that this is in large part a statement of the bleeding obvious.

Public spending will be extremely and perhaps unprecedentedly tight. There are some areas where pressures for more spending will be very hard to contain - given the demographic impact on healthcare and social care. There are other areas which many of us will want to prioritise - especially youth unemployment during the recession, greening the economy, and reducing child poverty. A politics of priorities inevitably means working out what not to spend as well.

So I can not see how the Labour government could possibly convince its own supporters, or the broader public, with an argument about tight spending priorities while still pushing ahead with the ID cards programme.

I admit that I have never an enthusiast for ID cards, arguing that a willingness to rethink would have been an important way for Gordon Brown to demonstrate his 'change' agenda; put flesh on the bones of his speech on liberty; and would help in rebuilding a Labour electoral coalition too.

But my objection to them has been more pragmatic than theological. It must surely be for those proposing the change to make a convincing case for their benefits, and to demonstrate that these justify the costs involved.

That has not been done - as Tony McNulty candidly admitted at a Fabian seminar back in 2005.

I do not think it has been done since then.

Very few will think that it could be done now.

A broadly similar case might be made about Trident renewal. But I think it is probably an issue which might best be handled differently, particularly to limit the extent to which spending on national defence becomes a heated party political controversy.

I think it would make sense to see if a cross-party approach to this issue is possible, as was largely successful in the case of the Adair Turner Pensions Commission. Perhaps some modern version of a Royal Commission - involving senior politicians from across the parties such as Paddy Ashdown and Ming Campbell, Malcolm Rifkind and Charles Clarke, along with military and defence practioners and experts - could make a useful contribution to a more informed and not excessively politicised public debate about future options.

There is a legitimate debate about whether an independent nuclear deterrent makes sense for Britain in the post-cold war world, with the sceptics now including some senior military voices, and how this fits with the broader push for multilateral disarmament to which the government is committed and which the Obama administration has placed high up the diplomatic agenda.

It has also been suggested by some supporters of Trident renewal, including Malcolm Rifkind, that the 'middle way' option should be explored, of freezing the current renewal programme so that the life of existing submarines and missiles, due to leave service in 2024, could be extended to 2042.

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