26 November, 2005: Back to the Future (of National Registration)

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Some bits and pieces. Firstly, go and read this paper on previous British ID card schemes and their lessons for the present day by Jon Agar (whom some of you will have heard on a ``Long View'' programme on a similar subject earlier in the year). The one-sentence history of the two previous ID card schemes is that the first one (during the First World War) failed, because the population didn't have to carry their cards and had no incentive to keep their records in the Register up-to-date; the second (Second World War) scheme, was -- on its own terms -- more successful, because its designer gave the scheme a parasitic vitality by linking the scheme closely to the rationing of food; everyone had to have an up-to-date ID card in order to get a ration book. (OK, that was a long sentence.) Jon carries on to argue,

The purpose of the second identity card system was clearly understood and articulated. Once the political backing was secure, civil servants such as [Sylvanus Percival] Vivian [then Registrar-General, and architect of the scheme] identified weaknesses -- in particular the public's reluctance to keep the card -- and designed solutions to overcome them. In contrast, the purpose of the first card had been poorly understood and articulated. It was driven by a Cabinet argument that, once resolved, left the card high and dry. Contemporary proposals for identity cards bear much more similarity in this respect to the first card than the second. Again, we find the purpose of the card remarkably hard to pin-down. Certainly, there is no evidence that measures to give the contemporary card a `parasitic vitality' are being given the thorough consideration necessary for success.

I'm not so sanguine. The link between the new ID card and so-called ``designated documents'' -- documents which can only be obtained with an ID card, or by simultaneously applying for an ID card (passports and Criminal Records Bureau check letters are suggested examples) -- could well be intended to have the same effect of lending parasitic vitality to the National Identity Register. As Jon points out, with parasitic vitality comes function creep; but it's not worth complaining to the Home Office about function creep in the present proposals, because the functions of the new NIR are precisely intended to creep -- hence the single identifying number and the fantasy of economising the delivery of public services.

(As an aside, the 1995 Michael Howard proposal linked ID cards to driving licences; as now, the idea that an ID card might become a valid international travel document was also held out as a -- probably illusory -- carrot.)

Some other comparisons with the previous schemes stand out. One trivial one is that both the 1915 and 1939 systems were called ``national registration'', and were implemented by National Registration Acts. There was no attempt to mislead anyone into thinking that the ID cards themselves were the object of the exercise. Contrast that with today's ``Identity Cards'' Bill, which is, of course, all about... national registration.

Another interesting item is a 1950 memorandum on ``The Future of National Registration'', written by a civil servant in the General Register Office, pondering what should be done with the Register and the ID cards, with half an eye on the end of the system of food rationing which it parasitised. (This was mentioned by Jon Agar in a seminar on the subject I attended in September; he's kindly sent me a copy, which I've stuck on the web since it seems likely to be of wider interest. This also exposed me to a new kind of copyright idiocy -- well, new to me, anyway. Public records are Crown Copyright, but the nice people in the government have waived copyright in them. However, the waiver doesn't apply to ``images, including copies of documents''. So I had to retype the thing, and I can't stick a scanned copy on the web so that people can refer to the original if they find a typo in my copy. Sigh.)

It's an interesting document. Two things stand out: first, the detail of the cost-benefit analysis of National Registration as it stood in 1950; in estimating the benefits of the system, the author frequently goes into all the gory details of how particular information-processing tasks could or couldn't be accomplished without the Central National Register available, for instance:

[...] This would perhaps consist of (a) entering date of birth (from National Registration records) on to every reference leaf, (b) checking the old reference leaves against the new after every re-issue, (c) copying date of birth from old to new reference leaves after every re-issue. Date of birth would be asked for at every request for replacement of lost ration book and perhaps at every request for a new book at the annual re-issue. It is not easy to say how much of the above the Ministry of Food would decide to put into operation, or whether they would adopt some alternative plan (e.g. using the old National Registration Maintenance Registers, re-sorted into alphabetical order, as a permanent check register).

I think the modern equivalent would be a memo which broke into PL/SQL half-way through to explain how some particular governmental task should be accomplished on the department's database. Somehow I doubt that anything like that is circulating in the Home Office today.

Secondly, unlike the Home Office's pronouncements, the memo is not quite silent on the dangers of national registration:

it is true that if this country went communist or fascist the National Register would prove a very handy means of finding any individual whom the authorities did not like...

-- admittedly, this was a private memo for office consumption.

However, the analysis is not free of inconsistencies; compare paragraph 22: (emphasis mine)

Other irreplaceable services rendered by National Registration are as follows:--

(i) To the Police. The demand for production of an identity card provides the police with a first-class means of checking the account given of himself by any person whom they may be interviewing. [...] Alternatively if he fails to produce the card or has altered the card to conceal the truth, he can be prosecuted under the National Registration Act, and this often results in a bad character getting a punishment he deserves even if there is insufficient evidence to charge him for the primary offence for the sake of which the National Registration offence was committed.

with paragraph 33:

[...] To such arguments it is fair to reply that it has been the consistent policy not to use the Register [for] the detriment of individuals except in cases of serious crime or for purposes of national security.

Similarly, the argument that under a totalitarian régime we would not have had too much to fear from the existence of the Register, since it could not be used by such a government to pick out classes of people, is a little undermined by one of its own examples:

The National Register cannot pick out the Jews or the Bougeoisie or the Roman Catholic priests or the agents or members of any political party. All it can pick out is [for example] persons who had a particular occupation in 1939 or some later date.

A person whose occupation was ``Catholic priest'' on registration in 1939 or whenever was relatively unlikely to have changed jobs, I think.

The uplifting bit of the second ID cards saga was, of course, the story of Clarence Willcock, who in December 1950 refused to show his ID card with the immortal words, ``I'm a Liberal, and I'm against this sort of thing.'' As a second bit of mindless link propagation, therefore, I point you at the winter 1997/8 issue of the Journal of Liberal Democrat History -- see pp 16--17 for an article by Mark Egan on Willcock v Muckle and the demise of National Registration in 1952.

I probably owe you holiday photos for the above, so here are two:

This bear is just as bored of ID cards as you probably are Stockholm: not as warm as it looks

Copyright (c) 2005 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.