Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Inconsequential opinions

3 May 2004

David Blunkett and Tony Blair think that identity cards are a good thing. And opinion pollsters tells us that maybe 80 per cent of adult Britons think so too. But is this good enough reason for a policy for which the practical benefits seem remarkably thin?

The part played by mere opinion in politics is far greater that it is in other areas, such as business, or science, or the arts. Mere opinion causes governments to rise or fall; people cast their ballots on the basis of personal feelings that may or may not be substantiated by facts, and governments live or die by their ability to tap into the popular view.

What is distinctive about this is the way in which democracy measures opinion. It does so by asking voters to select candidates from a list, a selection that may reflect the personal impression created by the candidates but that is largely influenced by the impression the voter has of the political parties, their personnel and policies. Parties wishing to maintain a good impression need to monitor continually how they are doing, so the electorate is constantly being asked by opinion pollsters their opinion both on the parties and the political issues of the day. The effect is a sort of permanent, rolling election in which parties frequently adjust their position in the hope of being the one in the lead when the day of real voting comes.

In other words, part of having the "right" policy is to have a popular policy, since the common measure of political success is to remain in power. A bad policy that is popular may prosper initially while a good but unpopular policy never gets off the ground. The problem is that the popular but bad policy is likely to become unpopular when its ultimate failure becomes clear. The trick is to ride the initial popularity and hope that the failure will be hidden by the new, popular initiatives that have come along. In this way government becomes a succession of popular initiatives of which the long term consequences are of secondary political importance.

Compare this with the way that a supermarket goes about its business. Opinion is hugely important to them, too, but they do not rely upon anything so insubstantial as what people say that their opinion is. Success for a supermarket lies not in people saying that they like them, but in their opening their wallets to prove that it is so.

Supermarkets do not need to ask people what sort of breakfast cereal they prefer. They find this out by stocking a vast selection and watching what they buy. They move the products round to make sure that people a really purchasing through decision rather than visibility or accessibility, and they end up putting the most popular product in the most visible and accessible spot on the shelves. Then, when they do ask their customers their opinions, they learn something much more interesting that their preferences in breakfast cereal; they learn something about the customers themselves.

The point is that an opinion is only an opinion. It doesn't necessarily translate into a motivation for action. If (as may happen) the expressed opinions of supermarket customers do not reflect their purchasing patterns, it demonstrates that purchasing decisions are more deeply rooted than superficial preference. It is well established, for example, that people will repeatedly purchase a product they are used to, even though they know perfectly well there is a nicer one at an equivalent price. In this case the supermarket can satisfy both the customer's true preference and their superficial (opinionated) preference by stocking both products. The customer feels that their opinion has been respected while still being able to buy what they want. Meanwhile, the supermarket gets the sale and the profit.

This instance of someone holding different views at different levels has many parallels in politics. For example, when rural communities campaign for speed limits through their villages it is always the local people who end up getting tickets. Naturally enough, people want slow traffic when they're out walking the dog and they want to drive fast when they're late for work. And it is not simply a conflict between dog walking and being late for work. In this case there is a conflict between the generality (that speeding is, in general, a bad thing) and the particular (being late for work on a particular morning).

Similarly, people with a generally negative attitude to immigrants and asylum seekers find themselves protesting bitterly when their particular friendly neighbour and her four agreeable children are dragged off to be deported to their hostile homeland. This reflects the luxury of inconsequential opinions relative to those that make a real difference. Inconsequential opinions are those for which little responsibility need be taken; either no one is affected by them or they are so widely held that one person more or less makes little difference. Being negative about immigrants and asylum seekers generally falls into both these categories, whereas you attitude to your neighbour (whether or not they are being deported) is powerfully consequential in that it affects a real relationship.

The sort of attitudes that make it into opinion polls are almost invariably inconsequential. That is why people support capital punishment who would not themselves be willing to administer the sentence. (Although in this case the degree of consequentiality is even more remote since the people who say they favour capital punishment know perfectly well that parliament won't vote for it.) In the case of identity cards there are also two degrees of remoteness that separate the popular opinion from the policy. The first is that (like those speeding drivers) people don't think about the consequences for themselves, such as the expense and inconvenience of obtaining and holding on to an identity card, or the bureaucratic nightmare of having it stolen, or something going wrong with its integral technology. The second is that people are assuming all sorts of benefits for the cards of which they can have no knowledge or experience. The claims made in terms of reduced fraud, illegal immigration, crime, terrorism etc., etc. are based on mere supposition uncritically accepted. People support I. D. cards because they believe these things without having any idea whether they are true.

The alarming truth is that Blunkett and Blair are also in precisely this position. If they have good evidence of all these benefits, they have yet to publish it. All they are doing is relying upon their own opinions, fortified by the results of the opinion polls that tell them that this is one of those political initiatives that will do them good in the short term. The problem for the rest of us is that opinions in the mind of senior members of the government are far from inconsequential. The consequences of this particular one will be expenditure of several billion pounds, a technological solution that, at best, will be far from perfect, a legal framework that will irritate the freedom-loving while being too riddled with exceptions and holes to satisfy the needs of the enforcers and, which is worst, the waste of vast amounts of government time and political capital that could have been put to some genuinely productive use.

©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004