Playing the ID card

Identity cards for all will reinforce a climate of suspicion.

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

UK home secretary David Blunkett has unveiled proposals to bring in identity cards in Britain.

The point of the cards, he has variously declared, would be to cut down identity theft, benefit fraud, terrorism and illegal immigration.

The idea that ID cards could be a practical solution to such problems is absurd, as I’m sure card-carrying European countries would testify. International terrorist networks, and anybody else who so desired, would manage to forge a card, or just get one of their own.

Instead, the plan is a perfect example of New Labour’s instinct towards an encroaching surveillance and regulation, the latest in a series of initiatives that includes the recent so-called ‘snoopers’ charter’ and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act (2000).

The response to the ID card proposals from many quarters has been less than enthusiastic. But this is not surprising, considering that the government itself seems unable to put a clear case for having ID cards, instead launching its proposals in a cagey, unconvincing manner.

‘I hope that because we actually genuinely tried to bring a really fresh look and some creative thinking to the debate that people may well be pleasantly surprised by the document’, said home office minister Beverly Hughes, launching the ‘consultation document’ for ‘entitlement cards’. ‘The most important thing is that we want to hear the views of ordinary people’, she said.

Lacking the guts to launch a policy statement, New Labour has plumped for a six-month chat about the issue instead. Rather than float policy and see if there is a reaction, New Labour is pre-empting the reaction in advance by claiming that the government itself is neutral. Even though he is home secretary, Blunkett downplays his support for ID cards as just a ‘personal’ preference – perhaps influenced by his recent humiliating backdown on the draft order to extend surveillance powers under the RIP Act. New Labour may be drawn towards encroaching surveillance, but it encroaches hesitantly, and is quick to retreat.

Some opponents to ID cards claim that the cards will constitute a huge assault on our liberty. Actually, although ID cards will make centralised surveillance easier, it is unlikely that they will have major practical implications. We already have to give ID when we draw dole or claim asylum – and we have to give personal details when we go to the doctor or hospital.

A bigger problem with ID cards is the message that they would send. If everyone is made to carry ID cards it will foster the idea that we are all under suspicion. ID cards would help to reinforce today’s climate of mistrust. Even more than at present, we would feel we are constantly accounting for ourselves – and looking over our shoulders at our fellow citizens.

It is less our individual, practical liberty that would suffer, than our ability to use the freedom we are given – by doing as we please and mixing and working freely with those around us.

It is for that reason that these plans should be opposed – if they ever get put on the table, that is. Let’s see if Blunkett’s got the b-b-bottle.

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Topics Politics

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