The Spectator

Plastic poll tax

The liberal-minded Tony Blair has had his identity stolen

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It seems increasingly plausible that among the many Britons to have had their identities stolen is one T. Blair of London SW1. Perhaps it was an application for a platinum card, carelessly discarded in the Downing Street dustbin, which allowed the criminals to strike; perhaps it was a greasy teenage boffin who hacked his way into Tony’s PC. Whatever it was, it is difficult otherwise to reconcile the fresh-faced, liberal-minded Tony Blair of the 1980s and 1990s, who championed human rights and made a stand against overbearing government, with the waxy, angular authoritarian who passes himself off as Tony Blair today.

Perhaps a biometric examination of his eyeballs, under the government’s proposed ID card scheme, will settle the matter for good. Or perhaps not. Given the multiple failures of other government IT systems, chronicled elsewhere in these pages, it is improbable that the Home Office will get a remotely reliable national ID database in return for an outlay, estimated in a thorough study by the LSE, of £19 billion. In any case, there is little to suggest that eyeballs provide a foolproof method of human identification. The whole scheme presupposes that criminals will not find some way of altering their biometric data; the day ID cards are introduced opticians can expect long queues of shifty-looking gentlemen seeking corrective laser treatment.

The libertarian arguments against ID cards have been rehearsed often, and are no less valid for that. However benign the government’s intentions, the fact remains that the information collected for ID cards could also be used by authoritarian regimes. We have seen, through the new lop-sided extradition treaty with the US, the abandon with which our own government is prepared to co-operate with other nations which have designs on our citizens. What is there to prevent the likes of Robert Mugabe gaining access to our national ID database through Interpol? Do we want rogue elements in our own security services to have the power to monitor every movement of every citizen? And what of the persecution of innocent citizens which will result from the fallibility of the data? It may be faintly amusing when a fine for non-payment of the London congestion charge drops on to the doormat of a milkman in Aberdeen, the registration plate of his float having been confused with another vehicle’s. It will be rather less amusing when armed anti-terrorist police turn up at the homes of innocent people whose eyeballs closely match those of terrorist suspects. ID cards will not, ultimately, prevent identity theft; they will merely make life easier for criminals who manage to master the forgery of them.

Great though the libertarian case against ID cards is, Tony Blair has calculated, probably accurately, that the British public is apathetic on issues of liberty. This is perhaps inevitable: few Britons have lived under dictatorship. But there is another aspect to ID cards which will surely not escape the wrath of the people: their cost. According to the LSE study each ID card will cost a minimum of £170 to produce, payable upon renewal every five years. Even if, as the government has now indicated, the cost to each individual will be capped below £100 (the balance, of course, will be borne by taxpayers in other ways) it still amounts to a tax on existence on the scale of the hated poll tax. That tax, at least, went to public services. But all a citizen will get in return for his £100 ID card fee is a piece of plastic.

Gawd help the citizen who loses his ID card, as many thousands inevitably will. Their lives will presumably be suspended until they have gone through the business of proving they have not dropped from outer space or been smuggled into the country. The main effect of ID cards will not be to fight crime but to create offences: offences by those who refuse to have a card, refuse to produce it on demand, or who deface the wretched thing with a pair of bunny ears in a drunken jape.

It is a sign of being too long in power that a government treats the public less as people than as pawns in its own megalomaniac schemes. It becomes so confident of its ability to muster thin majorities of pliant backbenchers that it omits to listen to the larger disquiet in the country. On Tuesday evening the Blair government demonstrated that it had reached that stage. Those who imagined Labour backbenchers would choose ID cards as an excuse to depose Tony Blair were sadly disappointed. The real storm, however, will come when members of the public, leading happy lives of blameless obscurity, are ordered to present themselves at their local council offices to have their bodies scanned, and are charged £100 for the privilege.

According to the Home Secretary, who has changed his argument for ID cards so often that he has long since passed the point of credibility, the exercise is now all about ‘securing our identities’. We are confident that this is not how the public will see it. Rather, they will feel, like the victims of identity thieves themselves, that they have had their identities — and their money — stolen by the state.