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Identity crisis

Bossy-boots Blunkett’s plans must be resisted, says Paul Robinson, who has acquired five new cards in recent months, and it’s been a pain in the pocket for him

15 November 2003

12:00 AM

15 November 2003

12:00 AM

Bossy-boots Blunkett’s plans must be resisted, says Paul Robinson, who has acquired five new cards in recent months, and it’s been a pain in the pocket for him

I recently had my fingerprints taken for an identity card. If our autocratic Home Secretary, David Blunkett, gets his way, this will in the next decade or so become a universal rite of passage. Mr Blunkett has made it clear that he considers the issue of ID cards a ‘defining moment’ in Britain’s future. I agree, for his plans will define a new Britain which has turned its back on its traditional freedoms and adopted a new persona entirely out of keeping with that we have always held dear.

In the past few months, I have acquired no fewer than five new identity cards, three passports and three driving licences. My experiences have convinced me that ID cards are not only wrong in principle but also pointless in practice.

To be fair, my situation is not entirely typical. I am a dual British and Canadian citizen, who works in Hull, but who commutes to a family home in Brussels. For that reason, I have both British and Canadian passports, and for long-winded reasons a diplomatic passport, which is a pleasant bonus. In addition, since Belgium does not recognise Canadian driving licences, I have had to supplement my British and Canadian ones with an international driving licence. I have also had to acquire a Belgian identity card and a small pile of other photo ID pieces from various organisations.

The result is that I now need a small suitcase to carry these things around, but since I have relatively few of the other bits of plastic that fill up everybody’s wallets nowadays — credit cards, debit cards, customer loyalty cards, club membership cards and so on — I don’t think that I possess significantly more pieces of identification than anybody else. Indeed, I would reckon that far from needing more identification, most of us are already sinking under an oppressive weight of it. Now Mr Blunkett wants to burden us with yet another example, and to make things worse wants to charge us £40 for the pleasure. This is a tax by any other name.

The Belgian ID card seems deliberately designed to be just too big to fit into any suitable carrying device, and just large enough for its inflexible plastic to dig uncomfortably into your thigh every time you sit down with it in your pocket. It is, in short, a ruddy nuisance. This might not matter if it did any obvious good, but it doesn’t. My ID card didn’t stop some criminal sneaking up to my house late one night and unscrewing my car’s rear number plate (if anybody in Brussels sees Ontario licence plate AFJY 212, and it’s not on a silver Pontiac Montana, I would like it back, please!). Supporters of these cards seem to think that they will reduce crime, terrorism and illegal immigration, but they have produced no solid data to back this up. Countries with ID cards have these problems every bit as much as Britain. Of course they do. Those with the will find their way around any obstacle. ID cards are a panacea, a quick-fix solution. But there is no evidence that they work in practice.

In addition, they inconvenience the individual. The Guardian’s Brussels correspondent recently noted how he had visited the Belgian police one morning to make a complaint about noisy neighbours, only to find himself being reprimanded for not having his ID card on him. In such ways do these devices needlessly turn the victims of crime into perpetrators.

And here’s the rub. Why should I have to have this thing? Mr Blunkett says that although his cards will be compulsory, one won’t have to carry them at all times. This rather defeats the purpose of the whole exercise. In any case, his scheme still undermines individual liberty. Say I happen to pop out to the local shop and find a policeman en route who asks me to produce my ID card. When I can’t, he orders me to turn up with it at the station within 24 hours. Well, why should I have to? I’m not an illegal immigrant. I’m a generally law-abiding person. I don’t mind paying £40 if I know I’m going to get £40 worth of something back. But what am I getting for it beyond a singularly expensive rectangle of plastic? To be forced to pay for something that will only inconvenience me is an outrage.

In my own case, my Belgian ID card is the least of my worries, as I have gained four more cards whose purpose it has taken me some time to fathom. One of them has revealed to me why the obsession with bits of plastic is potentially dangerous. When I mistakenly flashed the wrong card at one installation, the security guard on duty clearly hadn’t a clue what it was, and made only tentative inquiries. ‘Yes, yes’, said I, with the confidence of a born bluffer, at which point he waved me in happily, all the expensive security defeated by the wrong card.

This is one of the problems with the obsession with official paperwork. The bureaucracy obsessed with documentation comes to value it as having some mystical quality, so allowing those who bear it to act as they wish. Flash an ID card at somebody, and you are respectable, trustworthy, allowed to pass even where you should not be. It reminds me of Fitzroy Maclean noting in his Eastern Approaches that, when travelling round Soviet Russia at the height of the Great Terror, he could always get anywhere he wanted by showing a letter from the British embassy, such was officialdom’s fear of questioning any document issued by an official agency.

So my mistaken ID card seems to do something it should not, which is a bonus for me, but an argument against such cards in principle. Another ID card has a photograph so distorted as to be unrecognisable, but has never failed to work. Even merchants who have money to lose very rarely check credit-card signatures. How often will ID photos be checked? Very often they are out of date. My children’s passports hold pictures of them as babies. Five years or so later on, even I, as a devoted father, could barely tell which was which.

Another of my new plastic accessories allows me into an American commissary in Belgium. American soldiers do not like to mix with the locals. The commissary exists to ensure that wherever they go, they can get access to American goods and pay for them in American dollars. So in Belgium, the existence of the commissary ensures that they can still get their Pop Tarts and never have to walk to the patisserie in the morning to buy fresh croissants and pain au chocolat.

This is not all bad. I quite like Pop Tarts. But it does rather take the fun out of living in Belgium, and I therefore have no desire to use this American gift. But still I carry it around, along with all the others, because I’ve been told I ought to, and you never know what might happen. Then, if you consider that I have four children, each of whom also has most of these bits of ID, you suddenly realise that Blunkett’s desire to load me down still further raises my temperature somewhat.

But in all this, I have missed what is perhaps the most important argument about identity cards, which is that they are ‘identity’ cards. They define who we are, and how we view ourselves, but do so in a thoroughly negative way.

Supporters of the scheme dismiss such ideas as ‘emotional arguments’. Indeed, they are. There is nothing wrong with that. Emotions are an important, a vital aspect of our existence. Failure to understand the emotional impact of their policies is one of the prime failings of the rationalist technocrats who govern our lives.

For decades Britons have defined themselves precisely as the sort of people who do not have to carry ID cards. We are a free people. The dictatorial regimes of the Continent can do that sort of thing, but we do not. Forcing us to prove our identity alters the relationship between state and citizen. It proves that the state does not trust us to
be who we say we are. In a democracy, the state which we elect should assume that we are honest, not that we are dishonest. In doing the latter, it insults our sense of personal dignity. This may be an irrational response. There may be no good reason for us to feel that way. But we do, and the state should respect it. It is who we are. Blair and Blunkett seem to want to turn us all into Belgians. Much though I like my new neighbours, that is not something I wish to be.

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