In classic wartime movies there was often a tense scene when fugitives trying to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe were stopped and asked for identity papers by some jackbooted official.
Our sympathies were invariably with the fugitives, and I suspect it is the lingering memory of these fateful encounters that explains much of the UK’s persistent reluctance to adopt ID cards. And this has persisted despite previous compelling arguments made because of the 9/11 terror attacks, Islamist terror attacks at home, and benefit fraud.
Now, in the wake of the Empire Windrush debacle, the seconds are out for Round 15 of the great ID campaign battle.
I can certainly think of many benefits and I sense the public mood is now more sympathetic than at any time in the past. Are we not already accustomed to having to produce our passports for photo ID at banks, or our driving licence? There is barely a form nowadays that does not require presentation of proof of residence – a council tax letter or utility bill.
The arch-Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg describes the Windrush scandal as a result of a Home Office obsession with turning Britain into “the sort of country that demands to see your papers” – though it was largely the consequence of the Home Office destroying original documents that accounts for much of the furore.
Nevertheless, a ‘one stop’ card with a name, number, photo, address and date of birth details would quickly and efficiently establish our credentials, assist in the curbing of voter fraud and help in issues ranging from street crime to tracking illegal immigrants.
It would also be a notable convenience for individuals and in particular those who because of age or medical condition are entitled to a range of benefits. Here Scotland has stolen a march over much of the UK with its National Entitlement Card system.
The NEC makes it convenient for citizens to access various public services and facilities with only one card. It can be used as a bus pass, library card, leisure membership card and as a Young Scot card. It can also be used as student matriculation card and for access to printing and photocopying credit or for secure door access control into authorised buildings. The card can be used to take advantage of discounted entry to cultural entitlements and for health reward programmes such as smoking cessation schemes. Some areas also use NEC as staff identity cards as well as work-time recording systems.
It’s surprising how useful it is. The card system is supported by the Scottish Government and administered by local authorities, and with appropriate modifications I cannot see why such a system could not be rolled out across the UK. So what’s not to like?
And who better to manage such a system across the UK, particularly in tagging migrants to our shores, than the Home Office? It has the computer technology, the personnel, the expertise and stacks of population data already: what could possibly go wrong?
Here my doubts outweigh the convenience. I have a visceral concern that an ID system hands potentially enormous power to government and the state. It curtails that preference for discretion and anonymity – those aspects of our daily lives which, however humdrum, we feel to be our private sphere. You do not need to be paranoic to feel uncomfortable that our movements can be tracked, our homes located, and private information made easily available and accessed by all and every department of government.
The advocates of an ID system always start with the harmless, innocent examples: the bus pass, the library card, the easy access to municipal discounts. But it also creates the foundations upon which all manner of additional information may be added – from our health records to employment data, from voting records to our income, earnings and tax returns.
We enjoy the freedom and privacy we have through a regard for personal liberty and an antipathy to an all-knowing, all-prying state. These limitations on the reach and power of government, deeply embedded in our culture and upheld through centuries, are the vital guardians of our liberty. They are the ingrained hesitancy of a free people. We may feel, because of this cultural heritage, presently safe in our homes and able to go about our business without inquisition or pester.
But what might the future bring, if these restrictions in this unwritten constitution, are compromised or swept away by an extreme government of the Left or Right? It is not hard to envisage how, in such circumstances, we would feel the arbitrary and peremptory continental-style demand for “papers, please” from some finger-snapping government official to be not just intrusive but intimidating.
Yet for many the introduction of an ID system holds no such concerns. If you have nothing to hide, as its defenders say, what is there to fear? For others, it may be a regrettable but unavoidable development of an altogether more complex and heterogeneous age, one in which citizens are far more mobile and transient, a fast-changing world in which we are less likely to know our neighbours.
And why should the technology stop at a physical smart card in our purses and wallets? With the relentless onward march of medical diagnostics and robotics, it is but a small step to the microchipping of the population. No need, then, to carry round a card that can be easily lost or stolen. A tiny microchip embedded in our fingertips would provide instant reading of our identity at the mere press of a thumb. After all, are we not already urged to microchip our pets, the injection of a tiny chip to help keep tabs on Misty the Moggie and protect her from the scourge of identity theft?
But for the moment, a card for every citizen will surely suffice – so long as we promptly report any details of our change in status, marriages and deaths, local authority and home and, of course, any loss or theft. Always whirring and ever-reliable government computers will provide a replacement and do the rest.
Who could possibly doubt that our information would be in safe hands? That the demands of the state would stop at the basics of our lives? Competence, trust and official assurances: what have we really to fear?