Peter Oborne

Have the English lost their historic love of liberty?

Have the English lost their historic love of liberty?

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Imagine, for a moment, you are an international terrorist. Not a leading one, mind you, who might have his picture on cigarette cards if such things still existed, but your ordinary, bog-standard warped fanatic who can’t get a girlfriend and who is therefore looking for something to spice up his life. Having joined the freemasonry of random murderers, you find yourself in Great Britain a few years hence, and are about to strike.

Listen, as the robot-staffed phone lines say, to the following two options. First, if you are not a British subject, press ‘hash’. Second, if you are a British subject and will be deterred from planting a bomb because you have an identity card, press 1; if you, even despite having an ID card, will plant the bomb anyway, press 2, light the blue touchpaper, and retire. Of course, 100 per cent of international terrorists like you will take the final option. And the notion that non-Britons will be deterred from evil because they cannot hold an ID card should not detain any rational being for a split second.

This is relevant to the Commons’ second reading of the Bill to introduce ID cards because of the event that spurred the government to introduce them: the attack on America on 11 September 2001. David Blunkett, the last home secretary, favoured an ID system, though one searches the archive in vain for any compelling defence by him of the proposal. As is not so well known as it should be, Mr Blunkett decided it would be wise to back ID cards mainly because Mr Blair did; and Mr Blair — who said at a press conference this week that ID cards were an idea ‘whose time has come’ — was in favour because various of his unelected and rabidly authoritarian advisers had convinced him it had to be done. The idea was inherited by the new Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, who as a former student Marxist has no problems with illiberalism or repression, and who as a convert to New Labour will believe in anything that enables the chauffeur-driven limo to continue to arrive each morning. Despite noises in advance that the government’s majority might vanish, the Labour rank-and-file sadly proved they are not yet so rebellious as all that.

These are early days, though. The Bill must now go to Committee, where matters could become fractious, and to the House of Lords, which Mr Blair has not quite yet turned into a rubber-stamp for his diktats. Much of the press finds ID cards either preposterous or sinister. A study by the London School of Economics — sneered at by Mr Clarke — also suggested that they would cost a whopping £19 billion, or more than £300 per person. The Information Commissioner said they were unacceptably invasive. Not only is there no evidence that they would prevent crime; there is also no plan of how, without massive state intrusion and bureaucracy, the scheme could be enforced even if passed into law. And then, as the mother of all considerations, there is this: why should someone in this free country, and who is not apparently committing a crime, be forced to prove his or her identity? Too many forget that ID cards would alter the whole balance of the largely unwritten (and largely unwriteable) contract between the individual and the state.

The one missing sector in an otherwise broad front against these cards is, oddly enough, the public. Opinion polls show great support for cards, support that declines only when people are told they might have to pay handsomely for the privilege of having them. Given most people are not criminals, terrorists or even benefit fraudsters, it is hardly surprising that they superficially see no problem with being asked to prove who they are. Perhaps Mr Blair has been more successful than we realise in creating such a siege mentality among our people that they now have a clear conception of a common enemy, and want additional weapons (such as ID cards) to use against that enemy. What the public does not seem yet to have grasped is that (a) ID cards will not make the blindest bit of difference to security (b) they will allow the state to create the apparatus of quite unpalatable and unnecessary control over individuals and (c) a demonstrably unreliable state (Child Support Agency, tax credits qv) will hold all sorts of intimate information about us, with no end to the improper uses to which it might be put.

Most people have no objection to being asked to prove their identity when they wish to make a claim on the state. The means to do this already exist. If you want to use the NHS, you need an NHS number. If you want to exploit the welfare system, you need a National Insurance number. If you want to use public roads in a motor vehicle, you need a driving licence. Admittedly, many people use these resources despite being technically disqualified. That is because without an even bigger police state than we already have, the rules are often unenforceable. ID cards would multiply the problem severalfold.

However, the public persists in thinking they are a good idea. We are not, perhaps, a philosophical nation, and tend to believe that the loss of freedoms attached to ID cards will matter only to the terrorist and criminal. We little see that they will matter to us, because they will greatly add to the state’s database on us, and enable all of us — guilty or innocent — to be tracked and monitored in a way we recall from certain European states in far unhappier times. And does anyone of intelligence still believe that the government is inevitably honest and trustworthy, or the police competent and reliable?

There can be only one reason for this complacency: it is that our people are too cosy, too cosseted, too self-absorbed to see beyond the ends of their noses — or, rather, beyond their widescreen tellies, their state-of-the-art white goods, their shiny new cars and their holidays in Ibiza. Affluence has become the enemy of vigilance. Because we have so much materially now, we have stopped remembering the value of what money can’t buy. In the days of Hampden, or Wilkes, or Cobbett, or John Bright, the average English man or woman had nothing nearly so valuable as Magna Carta and, later, habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights. Until time of war we as a people loved our liberty too much to accept state control. Now the consumer society has given us more tangible possessions to treasure, and our love of our freedoms has been relegated. Perhaps we should call it the Singapore Syndrome, after a nation that has long complemented wealth with the rod of iron. Sadly, unlike that and many other such countries, we have a vast heritage of liberty to lose.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail.