24 May, 2003: ... and go where I damn well please

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Apparently David Blunkett has now stopped beating about the bush and is advocating the introduction of identity cards, as opposed to the fluffy, happy `entitlement' cards which were previously proposed.

One Andy Burnham MP appeared on the Today programme this morning to defend this latest extension of authoritarianism. Burnham has a bit of a bee in his bonnet about ID cards, and on the radio repeated the arguments he trotted out in a letter to the Guardian in February.

Burnham tells us that,

``people are accepting that ID cards are necessary and inevitable,''

though he doesn't bother to mention which people are accepting this, or to name the focus group to which they belong. In response to his claims about the marvellous benefits of the cards, Alex Runswick of Charter 88 quite properly pointed out that

``the idea that they're going to prevent terrorism is simply wrong''

and offered in support the observation that all the perpetrators of the September 11th 2001 attacks held valid identity documents. To which Burnham responded,

``That's the American system... what's being proposed here is a very sophisticated system that would also contain biometric information.''

By now it should be obvious that as soon as a politician mentions the word `biometric' you should bury the silverware and head for the hills. Naturally Burnham -- whose degree in English doubtless leaves him with particular expertise in this field -- didn't trouble to explain how biometric information would help the State protect itself or its citizens from terrorism. I emailed him earlier, asking

Could you give me an example of a recent terrorist attack in a country without ID cards which would have been prevented by their introduction?

but he didn't bother to respond. This is probably not surprising, since he didn't respond to the same question when asked it on live national radio, except to make the rather surprising claim that,

``People don't have a right to anonymity. The State has a right to know who people are.''

Now, this is a bit of a novelty. Normally we think of the State having responsibilities to its citizens, and the citizens having rights and responsibilities to one another.

The claim is, of course, a value judgement, but regardless of this it cannot be in any way relevant to the ID cards debate. Nobody is asserting that the State has newly acquired this right -- if it has the right now, it had it all along. So we can't make an argument about introducing ID cards now on the basis of a `right' which the State either (a) has always had, or (b) has never had, since there has been no change in the State's position. It's not really clear why Burnham mentioned this at all. (If, on the other hand, he's claiming that the right is newly acquired, we should wonder how this came to be, especially since there has been no public debate on this issue at all.)

After his brief excursion into philosophy, Burnham returned to terrorism. He argued that,

``Terrorism is going to be the biggest threat to our security. By its nature it's hidden: it blends itself into the crowd.''

Again, no explanation of why terrorists -- who are unlikely to miss a chance to blend into the crowd by carrying a valid ID card -- should be in any way thwarted by Mr. Blunkett's bonkers notions.

At this point, John Humphries -- presumably judging that no more blood was likely to be squeezed out of Mr. Burnham's understanding of this issue -- asked a question of Alex Runswick:

``Most people in Europe carry [ID cards] quite happily. Why should we be different?''

To which she mumbled something about their rights being protected by written constitutions. This is, of course, irrelevant. Firstly, our rights are now protected by the (written) Human Rights Act. Secondly, Europeans accepted the imposition of ID cards long before their governments deigned to grant them the luxury of written constitutions. The real reason that typical Europeans accept ID cards -- and the reason that we should not -- is the history of authoritarian government which blights normal European states. A long parade of Tsars, Emperors, Kaisers and Fuhrers have cowed the occupants of mainland Europe into believing that carrying an ID document and producing it at the whim of one or other police or customs lackey is a perfectly natural state of affairs. We should not accept their verdict on this matter. As John Simpson points out in his autobiography, 150 years ago all travellers except Britons were frequently expected to produce their papers whenever travelling. Many Frenchmen and others would, when challenged, claim to be English in order to avoid this imposition. Since then, our position has worsened. We are expected to carry documents when travelling, though, as A P Herbert quotes in Stamp out Stampery,

... the passport, designed to allow us to `pass freely, without let or hindrance' is, in fact, the cause of more lets and hindrance than anything else. The nerves of the globe are worse [at the time of writing, in 1951], it is true, and its future seems even less assured than in 1925. But the disturbing suspicion grows that passportery has little practical purpose except the maintenance of full employment among the passport tribes.

Passports are bad enough. There's no reason to extend their tyranny into our everyday lives. Blunkett and his cohorts claim that ID cards will prevent terrorism -- which they won't -- and that they will assist him in implementing his policy of locking asylum seekers up in concentration camps and preventing them from obtaining employment. Even those who think this is a good idea probably don't imagine that ID cards will actually help, and again nobody has explained how they would do so. It's hard to think of an argument in favour. I observe also that since I last wrote about this the cost of the marvellous instrument has quintupled to 25.

As for Andy Burnham, I'd be fascinated to know whether his statements on this matter are his own, or if they are fed to him by Mission Control. His letter to the Guardian was a masterpiece of indirection, with a first paragraph making the claim about the cards being `a useful tool in the fight against a range of social problems, from anti-social behaviour to terrorism', and a second paragraph deftly avoiding explaining how the cards would achieve this, and instead claiming that `the British people' would be happy to carry the damned things at all times. But the fact that this carried as little rhetorical weight as typical New Labour statements doesn't necessarily mean that it came out of the same sausage machine.

Anyway -- and I know that this is futile -- if we must have ID cards, could at least one of their advocates make a reasoned case for them, explaining what benefits they will bring, how they will come about, and why one will be worth 25 to me?

And this week in `You won't hear him say that!'

David Blunkett:

If you want to recieve a state pension, you should welcome economic migrants into this country, since otherwise there won't be enough young people to pay for it.


I saw The Matrix Reloaded, a tedious kung-fu movie mixed with paperback-grade philosophy. The fight scenes are over-long and quickly become boring. The car chase, though quite entertaining, doesn't live up to the reviews. In summary, don't bother.

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.