ID cards: a badge to prove you’re ‘one of us’

New Labour’s ID cards scheme is a desperate attempt to magic up some sense of British togetherness.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Topics Politics

It has arrived. It’s baby pink and pale blue. It’s made from polycarbonate and it’s the size of a credit card. The newly designed British identity card was proudly unveiled last week by home secretary Jacqui Smith. It will be dished out from November this year, initially to non-EU nationals as they apply for work permits or visa extensions or register marriages or civil partnerships.

The reactions to the scheme were predictable. After years of speculation that the UK government will introduce compulsory identity cards, we have heard the for and against arguments countless times. Proponents of ID cards say they will make us safer, prevent illegal immigration and provide a practical proof of identity which we can use for things like joining a library, opening a bank account, or collecting packages from the post office (1).

Opponents counter that the ID card scheme is a costly assault on civil liberties, which will do little to deter determined terrorists or to stop illegal migrants, who tend to avoid contact with authorities anyway. And nor will a plastic card stop electronic identity fraud. Following various scandals involving scatterbrained officials losing discs with millions of Britons’ personal data on them, ID card opponents also have little faith in the government’s ability to keep our information safe.

More than 50,000 ID cards will be handed out to foreign nationals between November 2008 and March 2009. It will be compulsory for them to carry one, and from next year ID cards will also be given to those in ‘security-sensitive’ jobs, such as airport workers. From 2010, students will be encouraged to get ID cards, and the Identity and Passport Service plans to issue ‘significant volumes’ of ID cards alongside British passports from 2011, though Brits and EU nationals will have the choice to opt out of enrolling. Anyone who applies for an ID card, which will cost £30, will have to give over biometric details and personal data.

The ID card scheme became more unpopular than ever following the loss by HM Revenue and Customs last year of two discs containing 25million people’s personal details. New Labour was initially adamant that ID cards would be compulsory for everyone, but now it is going for a ‘consumer-led’ approach, encouraging large numbers of people to apply for cards rather than making them mandatory. The modification of the legislation follows six votes in the Commons, five defeats in the House of Lords, and promises by the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives that they will ditch the ID card scheme if they get into power.

So why is the government so keen to introduce ID cards? According to the Home Office, ‘being able to prove who you are is a fundamental part of modern life’ (2). In so far as our modern society is one in which citizens must be ready and willing at all times to show that they ‘have nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear’, ID cards are, indeed, an obvious feature of contemporary life. The mantra about ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ has been repeated ad nauseum by New Labourites as they have extended their tools of surveillance, from CCTV cameras to national databases to vetting schemes for adults working with children.

Yet despite all the talk of how convenient the cards are, and how it is in ‘our best interest’ to fork out £30 to get one, looking back at the initial plans it appears that what really informed the ID initiative was a desperate notion that ‘carding’ citizens will help forge a sense of British identity and togetherness.

Back in 2003, then home secretary David Blunkett presented the White Paper Identity Cards: The Next Steps (3). This suggested that ID cards will not only help combat crime, terrorism and illegal migration, but will also help forge individual and collective identities and instil in us a sense of belonging. In other words, ID cards can help us feel safe in our communities and confident about our Selves. From this perspective, ‘being able to prove who you are’ is not simply about demonstrating your right to live and work in Britain or to collect a package from the post office; rather the ID cards are infused with existential qualities, with a mystical ability to give owners a sense of self and a sense of place.

In the past few years, the political elite has been preoccupied with defining what life in Britain is about, and with instilling in the public a shared sense of identity. Proposals of how to achieve this have ranged from defining ‘common values’ to instituting a ‘British Day’ and creating new national symbols.

These attempts to define (by committee) what Britishness is, and to encourage, or even coerce, people to celebrate Britishness, betray a political class that is increasingly estranged from the public and unsure of how to connect with us. In this context, ID cards become a concrete form of getting to know the people – to establish in clear terms who belongs here and who doesn’t.

The gradual rollout of ID cards is an attempt by the government to get closer to an ever more distant public who are suspicious of politicians (and their databases). Officials seem to believe that focusing on the easy target of foreigners first will lend the project legitimacy. Immigrants are systematically turned into objects of suspicion, so the government can claim that forcing them to carry ID cards is a way of making the rest of us safer.

Immigrants often bear the brunt of the identity crisis of the British political class. They have been the targets of many Britishness-forging schemes in recent years. Consider the compulsory British citizenship test for immigrants, introduced last year. The government produced an official handbook for the test called Life in the UK; in truth, the book bears little relevance to real life in Britain.

Earlier this year, communities secretary Hazel Blears proposed that councils issue welcome packs to migrants as a way of explaining British customs, including advice on queuing, how to sort your rubbish and how to apply for a fishing license (4). And this month, immigration minister Liam Byrne penned a pamphlet titled A More United Kingdom, a result of a year’s worth of focus groups struggling to define what unites us all. The pamphlet outlines some ‘shared standards’, suggestions of how to achieve them and how to get newcomers to sign up to them so that they can ‘earn their right to become a citizen’ (5).

Even if ID cards are only compulsory for foreigners now, and even if reports of them heralding the end of freedom as we know it are exaggerated, ID cards do represent an attack on the culture of freedom. The National Identity Scheme forces us to prove our legitimacy to the government. It is a way of satisfying the authorities’ obsession with inspecting us and knowing us.

In truth, we all have something to hide from the government – whether it is our financial transactions, biographical information, personal habits or how we behave in our own homes. ID cards further diminish our right to be free from officialdom’s gaze; they erode the distinction between public and private where nothing must remain ‘hidden’.

The ID card will be a badge of non-guilt, a way of publicly displaying one’s goodness to the always-watching powers-that-be. They will be tools with which the government will define who is a legitimate and trustworthy person, and who is not. With time, as ID cards become more pervasive, opting out is likely to raise suspicion – after all, if you have nothing to hide, why not get an ID card..?

This view of citizens as ‘guilty until badged’ is far more worrying than the government’s logistical incompetence. Scrap the ID cards scheme now, before it’s too late.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked. She is speaking in the session Immigration: the more the scarier?, and chairing the session Candid camera at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill looked at liberty after ‘Discgate’ and interviewed Chris Atkins, who has been vocal in his opposition to ID cards. Mick Hume said Gordon Brown had lost it in The Mail. Dolan Cummings examined the surveillance society. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

(1) See Why do we need the National Identity Scheme? on the Home Office website.

(2) See Why do we need the National Identity Scheme? on the Home Office website.

(3) Identity Cards: The Next Steps (PDF), November 2003

(4) See Spit in the face of this patronising proposal!, by Nathalie Rothschild, 5 February 2008

(5) A More United Kingdom (PDF), Liam Byrne, Demos, 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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