Writing in the Daily Telegraph on the 10th December 2015, two Members of Parliament – Frank Field and Nicholas Soames – regret the cancellation, in 2010, of the previous Labour Government’s identity card scheme. They argue that the threat of terrorism requires us to think again.
By all means, let us think again. However, since no material facts have changed, I see no reason for reaching any different opinion from the one I have always held. Identity cards are an astonishingly bad idea – so bad that it is hard to make a case for them with any semblance of good faith.
Undeniably, there are benefits to having a single and authoritative means of identification. We all need to identify ourselves several times a week, sometimes more often. There are times when the authorities have legitimate need to identify us. Fraud appears to be a growing problem – so too illegal immigration. A biometric identity card would simplify large parts of our lives. It would smooth many of our interactions with the authorities.
The problem is that these benefits are not as great as we are told. Those European countries that already have identity cards do not seem to have less crime than we have.
Certainly, France, which has a comprehensive identity card system, has suffered much more terrorism in the past few years than we have – large scale terrorism that gets reported in our news, and a continuous round of intercommunal violence that is not reported. In most cases, identity cards are irrelevant to solving these crimes. The problem is less the identification of suspects once arrested than finding someone to arrest in the first place. For the rest, identity cards are no more secure than bank cards and passports and bank notes. Whatever document is issued and has value can and will be forged by the dishonest.
As for identifying ourselves, most of us already have passports and National Insurance cards and bank cards and driving licenses. The inconvenience we face is, at most, trivial.
Against these doubtful or minor benefits, there are the substantial costs of an identity card scheme. Some of these costs are financial. Issuing everyone with secure biometric identity cards will be expensive, and we do already have a large budget deficit. The main costs, though, will be to our traditional way of life.
Preventing Islamic terrorism is clearly not a main objective of the authorities. If it were, they would not have opened the borders after 1990, and kept them open. They would also not have done so much to cover up various kinds of wrongdoing in our Islamic communities. Fighting crime against life and property is equally not a main objective.
Far more important objectives of the British State, so far as I can tell, are to stop us from smoking and drinking and looking at pornography – and to keep us from organising against our increasingly Potemkin liberal democracy. There is already a vast database, filled with who we are and what we are doing. Identity cards would be a useful front end to this. It would allow us to be tracked as we went about our daily business. It could be used to see who was buying cigarettes or drink, and who was attending meetings of anti-corporate or identitarian pressure groups.
And the knowledge that we were being watched would change our behaviour. Raise even the potential costs of nonconformity, and there will be fewer nonconformists. Would you go to a gay strip club, or to a meeting of the British National Party, if there was a policeman outside with a pretext for checking the identity cards of everyone going in? How many cigarettes or bottles of gin would you buy, if you had to show an identity card at the checkout, and if you knew the records would be shared with the National Health Service and the child protection authorities?
In short, identity cards enable a soft totalitarian police state. To be watched is to be controlled. Without a single concentration camp or rubber cosh in sight, they will take us into a world that has become a stage on which we act at all times under the watchful eye of the authorities.
Look at the history of the debate over identity cards. Every real or alleged problem we have faced in the past quarter century – football hooliganism, bank and welfare fraud, personation in driving tests, selling stolen goods, being drunk in public, terrorism, illegal immigration – has been made into an argument for identity cards. If another Black Death were to wipe out a third of the population, the surviving officials in the Home Office would make this into an argument for identity cards. The problems change. The solution stays the same. The obvious reason is that the authorities really want to know what we are doing, and to scare us into stopping.
And so, my response to Messrs Field and Soames is: I will take my chance with the terrorists; you go back to Westminster and do the job we elected you to do. This is to protect our lives and property and traditional rights from a British State that is going, or has already gone, out of control.