Magazine article The Spectator

The Government's Contempt for Liberty

Magazine article The Spectator

The Government's Contempt for Liberty

Article excerpt

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. …

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