Peter Hitchens

Contempt for liberty

Identity cards threaten law-abiding citizens more than they threaten terrorists, says Peter Hitchens. Their introduction would signal the end of privacy — and of England

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Identity cards threaten law-abiding citizens more than they threaten terrorists, says Peter Hitchens. Their introduction would signal the end of privacy — and of England

The arguments in favour of identity cards are empty and false. The Prime Minister says there are no civil liberty issues involved in their introduction, when he means that nobody in his gutless Cabinet is prepared to put up a principled fight on this issue. He himself does not know what liberty is. Nor, clearly, does David Blunkett, who is planning to introduce legislation that could force everyone in Britain to have identity cards within five years. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, says he wants ID cards to combat terrorism and illegal immigration and urges us to accept his case because he is a senior policeman.

The matter is supposed to be more urgent than it was because of the recent mass murder in Spain. The obvious fact — that Spanish citizens have carried identity cards for years — does not seem to have occurred to those pushing identity cards as a means of protecting us from terrorists. Nor do they seem to have considered that most of the 11 September hijackers were in the USA on perfectly valid visas. Professional terrorists, often with the aid of state sponsors, can usually be guaranteed to have the most convincing papers of anyone in the passport queue, and the cleanest records. It is you and I, normal human beings, who are the ones likely to be held up because some computer is convinced that our eyeballs do not match the records (the fabled biometric scanning technology is actually nothing like as infallible as its promoters claim). Anyone with recent experience of the Passport Office or the DVLA will not be soothed by assurances that all will be well.

As for illegal immigrants, the most significant thing about them is that once they are here it is all but impossible to send them home under existing international law. The government knows this but prefers to keep quiet about it. But that is why, when the police find obviously illegal arrivals clambering out of lorries at midnight, they give them the address of the nearest social services department and the Home Office immigration office and wave them on their way. There is no point in doing anything else. How would compelling British subjects to carry identity papers in any way alter this fatuous process? It is the failure to halt undocumented migrants at the frontier that needs to be remedied, a task which the government simply shirks. Identity cards are not even a substitute for a proper immigration policy. They are a wicked attempt to use New Labour’s own failure to justify a nasty attack on freedom.

The other great argument, that compulsory registration would in some way combat crime, is similarly vacuous. What difference would it make? There is no evidence that it has any effect on crime levels in any of the many countries where cards are already compulsory. Given the almost total absence of patrolling police officers from the streets, who would check for cards anyway? Or would we have to submit to constant random round-ups and roadblocks? And what would they prove? A man on the way to a burglary with a valid identity card might well be left to carry on, while a respectable citizen who had left his card at home might equally end up spending a night in the cells. Given the inability of courts and police to convict, criminals’ identity cards will look just the same as everyone else’s. Too many of our politically correct police prefer to pursue the co-operative middle class than to confront actual, frightening wrongdoers. It is easy to guess who will be asked for papers and who will not, if they are ever imposed upon us.

The case for cards simply does not add up. It never has. That is because its real purpose is one nobody would ever vote for — a profound change for the worse in the relation between the individual and the state. As things stand, any official has to justify himself to us. The police, for example, must show warrant cards and wear numbers so that we can identify them. This is the right way round and is an important part of living in a country with limited government, where power is subject to law. It is, in fact, a living proof of the presumption of innocence. We need have no business with the state provided that we act within laws, which we have ourselves created to govern ourselves. This is why we in these islands do not carry internal passports, whereas almost everyone on continental Europe does. We are not compelled, as they often are, to register with the police before we can be connected to the electricity supply, or to show personal documents when we purchase travel tickets. The power that identity cards give to officials — to interrogate, obstruct and pry — is limitless, and they will use it.

Sadly, the last such episode in our history is largely forgotten. Most people, on being told that identity cards were compulsory during the second world war, think the measure was justified by the fear of invasion. This isn’t true. They were actually demanded, in 1939, not by the Home Office but by the Ministry of Health, on the pretext of ensuring that people responded to conscription. By the time they were issued, everyone of military age had already signed up for service anyway, but the cards were still imposed. Why? When I searched the newspaper archives for any instance of the cards aiding the capture of a spy or a fifth columnist, I could not find a single one. But I did discover cases of black-market trading in stolen cards, including one so large that it ended up at the Old Bailey. Half a million people, unsurprisingly, managed to lose theirs. Imagine the hours of queueing and form-filling that led to. There were also cases of officiousness by police officers and others oppressively demanding to see the papers of citizens. Once the war was over, this jack-in-office pestilence continued to grow long after any possible excuse for it was gone. The cards were not even of any use to the innocent person arrested by mistake. In 1945 Charles Jarman, a senior official of the National Union of Seamen, was held by police for hours because they absurdly suspected him of having taken part in a smash-and-grab raid. His valid identity card, which might have suggested to any intelligent person that the detention was ridiculous, was no help at all.

Perhaps the most poignant case in the files was of a Jewish furrier, Meyer Rubinstein, who was prosecuted in May 1950 because he had never registered his identity and so had never held a card. Presumably he had feared, in the dangerous days of 1939, that the mere presence of his name on an official register might one day cause his death. Who can blame him? The meticulously registered Jews of the Continent were rounded up with great ease when the time came, one of the few recorded and incontrovertible results of efficient national registration. Even so, it is interesting that Mr Rubinstein had managed to live undetected for 11 years in a Britain more regulated, centralised, recorded and regimented than at any time before this one. He was, however, one of the last victims of the law.

Soon afterwards, Mrs Joyce Mew of Tunbridge Wells refused to show her card to a pettifogging rationing officer who knew perfectly well who she was (you know the type). The case went to court and Mrs Mew was vindicated, to the delight of many who were sick of demands to identify themselves in this way. Even so, the government still refused to get rid of them until 1951, when that unlikely hero of liberation, Lord Justice Goddard, sided with a motorist who was asked by police for his card even though he had committed no offence. Goddard growled that the police were legally entitled to behave like this, but they ought not to be. ‘The duty to produce a card,’ he said in words which Sir John Stevens might note, ‘tends to make people resentful of the acts of the police and inclines them to obstruct the police instead of to ass ist them.’ That did it. The cards were finally abolished and millions of people gleefully tore them up.

In the intervening half-century, the Cold War compelled Western governments at least to pretend they were in favour of liberty, since we were officially battling against Soviet tyranny. The fact that Soviet citizens had to carry internal passports was a rather strong argument against introducing them here, much though the creepy authoritarians at the heart of the Home Office must have wished they could emulate the Russians. Now the ‘war against terror’ operates with a different ideology. It is not freedom our masters are now protecting, but ‘security’, that fuzzy blanket of a word justifying all kinds of monstrosities and misdeeds. Some think that the events of 11 September justify the suspension of scepticism about this (why, exactly?). But Anthony Blair’s enthusiasm for increased state power and contempt for liberty — which he now links to the Manhattan massacre — long predates those events. It was in September 1999 that he told a Labour conference, in a passage about compulsory drug-testing for all arrested persons, ‘It is time to move beyond the social indifference of Right and Left, libertarian nonsense masquerading as freedom.’

Mr Blair and his nasty government are actually one of the most powerful arguments against allowing the introduction of identity cards. Their tactics — to introduce supposedly voluntary cards but give themselves the legal right to make them compulsory without a further Bill — are fishy and reprehensible. But that is not the worst of it.

Some think that, because of the great number of specific identity documents we carry, a single state-sponsored document would merely simplify our lives. But the whole point about bank cards, passports, driving licences, office passes and so forth is that they are limited to one purpose. A state identity card would enable any government which chose, piece by piece and on grounds of ‘security’, to combine tax, criminal, employment, health and even education records in one place. The idea that ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ would only apply if you had no concern whatever for your own privacy. When I ask those who say this to send me their medical details, bank statements and salary slips if they really have nothing to hide, they tend to decline. Why, even the Prime Minister’s own exam results are a semi-official secret.

People who upset this government already tend to find that supposedly confidential information about them mysteriously leaks into pro-Labour newspapers. Imagine all the ways it is possible to use or abuse such information once you have everyone’s personal affairs on a central database and Whitehall is full of morally illiterate apparatchiks trained in the search-and-destroy methods of New Labour. Imagine the same pestilence spreading throughout an increasingly unaccountable state machine. It would be the end of privacy and, incidentally, the end of England.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday. His book The Abolition of Liberty is published in paperback this month by Atlantic Books.