There’s a specifically English tradition that the government doesn’t concern itself with the identities of the ordinary men and women of the country. Prior to the twentieth century, births and deaths were registered by the church, taxes were collected on land or trading of particular goods. There was never a national bureaucracy keeping records of individuals.

(There’s a famous quote about how prior to 1914 Britons would hardly have any routine contact with any officials of the government. Orwell? Keynes? I can’t find it and I’m quite annoyed).

A census was introduced in 1801 to guide recruitment strategy for the Napoleonic wars, and National Registration was brought in in 1939 for the Second World War, and abolished later. Measures such as National Registration smacked of Napoleonic totalitarianism. The government exists to serve the people, not the people for the government. My life is no business of the government until I bring myself to its notice, by committing a crime, or travelling abroad, or handling large amounts of money, etc.

I was firmly aligned with that tradition, supporting No2ID, opposing Voter ID, even grumbling incoherently about CCTV cameras.

I still really like the idea of such a light-touch, minimalist state that has no reason to know how many people live in a town or what that bloke’s name is who is sitting on the bench outside Costa. Warm feelings of free Anglo-Saxons and the Wintagemot, and all that (although of course in pre-modern societies nobody had anonymity, so that’s a kind of fantasy).

But we don’t live in such a state, or anything remotely resembling one. Today we live in a state which relies on at least a quarter of the money earned by each member of the working population for its survival, which provides an array of services from traffic direction to heart surgery to everyone, and also in which a dozen private companies already know how many people live in each street and what the bloke on the bench outside Costa watched on TV last week.

As I mentioned at the weekend, the state also has a register of births, a passport database, a register of electors, a driver licensing database, a National Insurance database.

We are not talking in 2024 about whether or not identity details are a concern of government, we are only talking about whether the government should manage its identity database efficiently or inefficiently.

People who are of any positive value to society are massively visible to the state. Citizens of the nation of car drivers, taxpayers, glow in cyberspace like planes approaching an airport. The only people moving in darkness are illegal immigrants, gypsies and underclass, flashing on just once a fortnight to collect their cheques.

Totalitarian is a strong word, but it is obviously the case today that to the extent that a government of an advanced country leaves any area of its citizens’ lives alone today, that is a policy choice, and not either a result of any limit of capability or of tradition. For better or worse, limitation on government today comes from government, and there’s no sense pretending otherwise.

I’ve written a few times before that Feudalism cannot exist today because it was caused by the technological incapability of central government to supervise regions. It seems equally true that the individualism of classical liberalism cannot exist in a world of £20 CCTV cameras and 4TB SSDs. It depends not on limited government but hogtied government.

Of course surveillance does not directly impact our freedom of action. It doesn’t necessarily mean we will become much more tightly limited in our actions. But of course, in practice we already are. We can’t say what we like, we can’t burn what we like, we can’t buy or sell what we like —not those of us with regular jobs and fixed addresses and cars, anyway. Why weep over the hostile underclass facing the same supervision?

Is growing totalitarianism the only future? Yes, probably; as I say, it’s a matter of technology. I would prefer otherwise, but if you’re going to act politically as if the world were other than it is, you might just as well be an anarcho-communist.

Ineffective government is bad government. Effective government is often bad government too, but at least there’s a chance. My view is that the intense stupidity of politics is to a large extent an effect of the practical impotence of politicians. Make those with responsibility less impotent, and at least there’s an incentive for them to become less stupid. (The aligning of power with responsibility is the other requirement, the central NRx principle, but doing that is a separate question. Today it’s the case that nobody has power).

I feel bad writing this. I am betraying what I once stood for. Give me a programme for achieving personal freedom that starts with keeping government databases more incomplete and inaccurate than Amazon’s, and I’ll recant.

Mini: Voter ID

This is the first general election with a requirement for ID documentation to vote. I’m opposed to elections, so this is not a concern of mine either way. However, I used to argue against voter ID. There are other arguments though, and it’s quite an interesting subject.

My old argument was that the government does not and should not run elections, and relying on government issued documents gives them too much control. Of course, postal voting makes this argument irrelevant, but I opposed that too for the same reasons.

The safeguard on elections was always transparency. Polling stations are public, you identify yourself in public and are given a paper in public, ballot boxes are visible and collected and counted locally in public. To commit electoral fraud you have to do it in public.

I recently discussed some of this in Holland with an assortment of Europeans. Their attitude was different —they have always had official government ID used routinely for many purposes. I always sneered a bit at that; our government does not need to track us all individually.

Today though I recognise that that model is just not appropriate in an era of mass income taxation, welfare state, and mass immigration. The British govt has never tracked and identified every person. But it is unfortunately past time it did.

So on voter ID, I still don’t care, but the government’s half-arsed attempts to cobble national identity management out of birth registration, national insurance registration, driver licensing and passports do actually need to be rationalised into true national ID. I hate it.

(Originally a tweet thread, 4 July 2024)

The Senate and People of Ukia

After the 2019 British General Election produced a large conservative majority for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, I wrote a “projection” / fantasy of how Britain could progress to a one-party state.

A one-party state on the Chinese model isn’t my ideal form of government. I would prefer an absolute hereditary monarchy such as the one I described in 2012. (Next year we will pass the half-way point of the 25 years between when I wrote it and when I set it, so I will review that then). But I never put forward a mechanism for getting to the absolute monarchy, only vaguely having in mind some serious political collapse and recovery. One-party states do exist today and some of them are governed much better than multi-party democracies. They are equally oligarchic, but the oligarchies are more rational, effective, and marginally less embroiled in infighting.

The central point of neoreactionary theory is that the root problem of our society is its structure of government. The most obvious problem is the people in charge, and if you look a bit deeper you see bad and harmful ideologies, but the theory is that the ideologies are the expected product of internal competition within an oligarchy, and that the people are the product of the structure and the ideologies.

If that is accepted, then the critical step is to change the system. Changing the system will in time change the ideologies and the people. So movement away from a system of oligarchic competition is a benefit, whether the one party is Labour or Conservative. It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat.

Admittedly, when I imagined Borisland, it was very much as a monarchical form with a Supreme Leader. I have heard suggestions that Xi is effectively sovereign over the PRC, but I don’t know and if I were to guess I would think it unlikely. Is Starmer a man who can dissolve ministerial responsibility? Or maybe there is a more ambitious successor waiting in the wings? Either could work. Every Prime Minister who is not universally pilloried as baffled and ineffectual (and some who are) is accused of introducing presidential government; it does not appear to be an impossibility.

Again, I would prefer not to be dragging even the pretence of democratic legitimacy behind the monarch, but, after all, the Roman Empire managed it.

What does the incoming Starmer administration have going for it? Quite a bit:

  1. Weak parliamentary opposition
  2. A prominent internal opposition
  3. A large majority to enable it to combat the internal opposition
  4. A leader who intimately understands the permanent government
  5. A leader young enough to last a couple of decades
  6. The support of the permanent government and the press (at least to start with)

The weak conservative opposition means that the government will not initially be too pressed to compete with it for popularity. My expectation will be that the government’s biggest fights for the first year will be against the left of the Labour party, and particularly the Islamic / pro-Palestine elements, plus the independent MPs that were elected specifically on that platform. Starmer’s pragmatic programme, coupled with his Jewish family, mean he will never be able to satisfy that wing, and would be unwise to try. Losing the Labour party’s traditional support from that population will be initially affordable given the huge parliamentary majority, and in the medium term will gain him much more support from the wider population.

In the modern democratic and media environment, the best way to advance a programme is to have unpopular people oppose it, and the worst way is to have unpopular people support it. If Reform are wise, they will keep a low profile for the next few years, take the money and quietly build an organisation. The government is much more likely to take action on immigration because George Galloway is against it than because Nigel Farage is in favour of it.

The knowledge of the permanent government is very important. In my lifetime, only two Prime Ministers have shown any real evidence of being in charge. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were both lawyers. They both had allies in the civil service (which was much more conservative 40 years ago than it is now). Kier Starmer and Harriet Harman are coming into government with an agenda that we can assume is very much in line with that of the permanent government. But they now have their own role and their own personal goals, and if, over time, they find they need to act against the wishes of that permanent government — they know where the bodies are buried. They know how the system functions, where its strong points and weak points are.

Again, the neoreactionary theory is that if they want to exercise power they will inevitably come into conflict with the permanent government. They want results that look good in the press. The most obvious reason that the Conservatives were useless is that they were just incompetent. The next most obvious reason is that they were traitors to conservatism. The deeper reason is that actually achieving any conservative goals was impossible, so many of them adopted more liberal positions because only by doing so could they avoid being ridiculous failures.

(For people my age, the most vivid examples are Michael Portillo and John Redwood; the two Conservatives seen as the ideological heirs of Thatcher, and the thorns in the right side of the moderate John Major, both of whom over time moved steadily more and more left decade by decade, finishing well to the left of Blair)

Achieving conservative goals was impossible for the Conservatives because the permanent government was united against them, and could obstruct them with legal and administrative bullshit to the point that anything they did achieve would cost them politically far more than it was worth (the two years of failure of the Uganda scheme is of course the prime example, but the pattern was everywhere). If I am right about the advantages that Starmer’s past experience gives him, he might not find things so impossible.

I do expect these conflicts to happen. Starmer will not want to deport illegal immigrants in order to get Sun front pages that will impress Essex Man — but he may find he wants to deport illegal immigrants in order to get the crime rate down and the welfare bill down, and to prevent his own children being blown up in their synagogue. He will want it to just happen, quietly. Can he do that? That’s the question.

If in five years’ time the economy is a bit better (and there is a ton of scope to achieve that by removing obstacles), the immigration situation is no worse, and the Conservatives are still in disarray (the huge error I made five years ago was in thinking that Labour would today still be largely engaged in fighting off Corbynist holdouts, so that’s a big open question), then he could carry as big a majority into the next decade. Technology today is very favourable to absolutism. A leader who is seen as legitimate will have many mechanisms available to him to cement his position.

I’m not going to try to imagine details. Armies under the absolute control of an Emperor carried the standard of the Senate and People of Rome, a Britain that has become “UK” (the latest constitutional proposals apparently include a Senate), perhaps without even being any longer an official kingdom, could also be directed by a single hand.

The horror of foreign policy

I’ve not said much about the whole Gaza / Israel thing since October. I have a pretty strong dislike of islamic terrorists, and no equivalent antipathy to Jews, although I do worry from time to time about their understandable but inconvenient tendency to oppose any kind of nationalism (except their own). So my inclination is towards the Israeli side. However, I try to stifle this on the grounds that I don’t know all the facts, though I’m swimming in propaganda, and it isn’t really any of my business.

While discussing yesterday’s General Election, yesterday, it became clear that the main way that that terrible, bloody conflict affects me is through its impact on British politics. Specifically, if British Muslims become estranged from the Labour Party over it, that will significantly change national politics, and will completely overturn local politics where I live.

Now, I don’t generally concern myself with practical politics, for a number of reasons explained at length on this site. I paid attention to the election for entertainment value rather than because I needed to know anything about it. But that’s just me, it’s an unusual view to take. For many people deeply concerned with politics, these questions of party alignment are among the most important things in their lives. Most people with influence over policy fall into that category.

For those people, the most important question about any actual or potential thing that could happen in the Middle East is: would that help me or my enemies in my local political struggle?

Think about that for a while. Peace talks, escalations, terrorist attacks, blockades — how do they affect my department, my constituency association, my party, parliament? Are they good for me, or bad for me?

I have written before that intervention in foreign conflicts tends to be harmful in humanitarian terms, even when specifically predicated on humanitarian aims.

I have seen it alleged (and don’t know whether to believe), both that Hamas intended a vast catastrophe to be inflicted on Palestinians, and that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu intended atrocities to occur against Israelis, in both cases because their political positions depend on the conflict continuing and escalating. If true, these are instances of the same thing, but less clear cut because the participants are much more connected to the direct harms of the conflict than remote foreigners. If someone in Ramallah or Tel Aviv is willing to stir things up in order to strengthen his position, then it is surely much easier for someone in Birmingham or Hendon to come to a similar conclusion.

So expecting the foreign policy directed by people in that position to be humanitarian in effect is very optimistic.