Badging the British
The UK government hopes ID cards will give the nation an identity.
There has been periodic speculation for years that the UK government might introduce mandatory identity cards. It seems a very New Labour thing to do: modern, authoritarian, an eye-catching initiative. And yet, nothing ever seems to come of it.
The idea has been put back on the agenda by a letter that was ‘leaked’ to The Sunday Times and published on 6 July, in which home secretary David Blunkett sets out his plans to go ahead with ID cards, insisting that ‘The argument that identity cards will inhibit our freedom is wrong’ (1). But the government is overly defensive about opposition to ID cards. In fact, the debate masks a deeper problem with the scheme.
A recurring feature of the discussion about identity cards is the increasingly perfunctory reference to ‘civil liberties objections’. The prediction that any move will anger ‘civil liberties groups’ is rarely borne out by any sustained campaign in defence of civil liberties. Liberty (2) and Privacy International (3) both argue quite strongly against ID cards, but their substantial objections just don’t resound in the current political climate, so both tend to fall back on the more pragmatic argument that the scheme won’t work for logistical reasons (4).
Indeed, the very term ‘civil liberties’ now sounds like an echo from another age. ‘Human rights’ are all the rage, especially when they can be presented as ‘fundamental’ or ‘basic’ (ie, unopposable). In comparison, ‘civil liberties’ seem a bit luxurious, even effete, especially when set against the key contemporary value of safety.
Ten years ago similar ‘civil liberties objections’ were discussed in relation to CCTV. It soon became clear that most people didn’t care. Indeed, the pervasive fear of crime meant that there was even some enthusiasm for CCTV. ‘Spy cameras’ are now all over Britain. To a lesser extent, there is also some enthusiasm for ID cards, although the argument that they will reduce crime, or even aid the fight against terrorism, is unconvincing. It is rather that some people just like having cards – it makes them feel special.
There might of course be practical benefits to having a single ID card, but the proposal is not motivated by concerns about our overflowing wallets. An official ID card would be much more than a handy combination of the cards and documents we already carry every day. The most notable difference is that nobody can stop you in the street and demand to see your supermarket loyalty card. The ID card would be more akin to a passport.
We tend to associate passports with the freedom of international travel, but a passport does not in fact help you travel around the world. Planes, trains and ships are rather more effective as means of transport. Your passport is only good for getting you past the armed men who guard the borders. It is a necessary burden (and necessary only for as long as states are able to restrict our movements), certainly not something to be celebrated. Similarly, ID cards will only be ‘convenient’ to the extent that the state proposes to militarise our own streets.
Because ultimately, official documents are only good as a means of placating official bullies. Anyone who has ever watched those docusoaps about immigration or benefits officials, or indeed experienced such officials first hand, will know that bullying is exactly what they are paid to do. Inasmuch as identity cards are to be used to clamp down on illegal immigrants and benefits chancers, the proposal is straightforwardly reactionary, not to mention mean-spirited.
But there is more to it than that. While anybody could in principle be asked to produce their ID card at any time, it is unlikely that many of us outside the unfavoured few would be much inconvenienced by the scheme. Nobody really wants to militarise Britain’s streets. But there is a broader political shift that does inform the ID card scheme. Recent discussions about citizenship classes in schools and for immigrants indicate that the government favours a more formal approach to citizenship. Essentially, David Blunkett wants to reconstitute the public as a membership organisation.
The national identity card would symbolise this model of citizenship, one based neither on cultural belonging nor political sympathy, but boyscoutlike ‘responsibility’. Good citizens would enthusiastically fork out £39 for their cards. The outsiders would be neither foreigners nor dissidents, but simply those who were unwilling to make such a symbolic sacrifice for the safety and wellbeing of the community. The national identity card would be the AIDS ribbon of the ‘responsible 2000s’.
In order for the scheme to work as intended, it would have to capture the public imagination in a way that seems not just unlikely but laughable. Blunkett’s model of citizenship is woefully uninspiring. It is the small-minded and mean-spirited nature of the scheme itself, then, rather than putative civil liberties objections, or even logistical difficulties, that presents the most significant problem for the government.
Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars.
spiked-issue: Free Speech
(1) ‘ID cards for all to cost £40’, David Cracknell, Sunday Times, 6 July 2003
(2) Liberty website
(3) Privacy International website
(4) See for example Liberty’s comment on Blunkett’s leaked letter, 7 July 2003
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