New Labour plays its last card
Media-friendly, gimmicky and pointless: New Labour’s ID cards scheme provides a fitting testament to its time in office.
So, the New Labour government is determined to go ahead with its controversial plans to bring in identity cards for British citizens, announcing this week that there will be a pilot scheme beginning in Manchester this autumn (1).
Both opposition parties are opposed to the plans, and many observers had expected it to be quietly shelved because of concerns about costs in the midst of the recession, with even former home secretary and ID card champion David Blunkett arguing they should be scrapped in favour of biometric passports. Clearly the government, which is increasingly weak and widely seen as on its last legs, has decided to take a stand on this issue come what may.
In a sense, New Labour’s determination to go ahead with the plan despite increasing worries about costs, and the possibility that significant numbers of MPs – including from within Labour – will fail to back it, is reminiscent of the last hurrah of John Major’s Conservative government: the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which effectively criminalised ‘travellers’, various forms of protest, and outdoor parties involving music with a ‘repetitive beat’. Having run out of ideas and facing widespread unpopularity, the Tories sought to shore up their traditional support by taking aim at smelly anti-road protestors, anarchist crusties, ‘anti-capitalist’ hippies, druggies, ravers, and other undesirables of the day. It didn’t work, and Middle England voted New Labour instead.
The difference is that more than a decade on, an exhausted New Labour doesn’t even have a traditional support, and is left courting the votes of an imaginary constituency of fearful technophiliacs who are apparently demanding plastic tokens of security. It is a gamble that is unlikely to pay off, but a fitting last act for the government. The identity cards plan embodies everything about New Labour: its love of media-friendly, gimmicky policy initiatives, its fixation with novelty and shiny technology, the politics of fear, the regulation of everyday life, and more fundamentally, the transformation of the relationship between citizen and state (2).
The rationale for introducing ID cards has varied over the years: at different times it has been presented as a way of fighting terrorism and organised crime, clamping down on illegal immigration and benefits fraud, and preventing ‘identity theft’. In truth, these are all secondary to a more basic impulse to monitor and control, or at least the government’s desire to generate a sense of these things. Issuing every British citizen and resident with an official identity card would be a powerful symbol of the state’s role in our lives, and by extension the legitimacy of the political class. While principled political objections to this are relatively marginal, it is no surprise that doubts about the whole enterprise have surfaced in the form of concerns about cost, efficacy, and even whether a state prone to leaving large amounts of sensitive data on the bus is capable of pulling the plan off.
Non-EU citizens living in Britain have been required to have ID cards since the end of last year, and workers at Manchester and London City airports are now being issued with cards, too – much to their annoyance. Anyone in Manchester will now be able to apply for a card in the pilot scheme, and home secretary Jacqui Smith says we can all look forward to picking one up at the chemist in the future. Aside from the novelty value – and a sort of anti-anti-ID card contrarianism discernable in a certain character-type – it is hard to see why anyone would want one.
Given our muted political culture, there is unlikely to be widespread resistance – though let’s not rule that out – but the enthusiasm apparently expected by the government is even less likely. The ID cards are not for us, not about us; they are about them, the washed-up, clueless political elite epitomised by Gordon Brown, who has finally fulfilled his ambition of defining Britishness for the twenty-first century: to be British is to have a piece of plastic that says you’re British. Beyond its casual authoritarianism, this is a fitting conclusion to New Labour’s historic mission of raising banality to the level of a ruling ideology.
Dolan Cummings works at the Institute of Ideas and is a founding member of the Manifesto Club.
Nathalie Rothschild said ID cards are being used as a badge to prove you’re ‘one of us’. 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) Manchester launch for ID cards, BBC News, 6 May 2009
(2) See Badging the British, by Dolan Cummings, 15 July 2003.