17 September 2003

Why you can count me out

Picture this: a quiet Sunday morning and you pop out to buy the newspapers. Absentmindedly you pick up your house keys and some cash and make your way to the local newsagent. Imagine your surprise when you encounter a policeman who demands proof of who you are and what you are doing. Only then does it dawn on you that your identity card has been left at home and as a result you face a mandatory fine.

Welcome to a world that may not be that far away despite what today's Home Secretary maintains are his plans for a limited use Identity Card. After the continuing appalling terrorist outrages and threats since 11 September 2001, I entirely understand the government's temptation to bring in compulsory identity cards. But it is a temptation which should be firmly resisted.

National ID cards were introduced during both World Wars and recently the Home Secretary gave a clear indication that they are very much back on the agenda as part of government policy in the war on terrorism and on asylum. My own constituency, right in the heart of London, stands to be most affected by these proposals. In addition to its residential population of 120,000, a further 800,000 travel to work in the Cities of London and Westminster every day with countless other tourists and shoppers visiting attractions like Westminster Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral and Oxford Street.

It is probably fair to say that the few square miles that make up my constituency superficially has least to lose from the implementation of a rigorously enforced compulsory identity card scheme, if only because so many of its landmarks are seen as high profile targets for a terrorist attack in the UK. It is my belief that a national identity card scheme has less to do with keeping the population safe than with imposing control over people. I accept that we will have to grow accustomed to a wider surveillance of certain groups of people within our country but this does not justify a wholesale erosion of our liberties.

Traditional values of tolerance and freedom have underpinned our open society and the introduction of measures such as compulsory ID cards will go a significant way to dismantling those democratic freedoms which so many of us hold dear to our heart. My own Conservative Party in particular recognises the importance of fostering values of individual responsibility and self-determination in our fellow countrymen. Many of those coming to this country from abroad do so from nations where all authority flows from a centralised state. All too little reliance is placed upon individuals having the freedom to live their life free from the demands of officialdom. This culture of freedom underpins our mature democracy and it should not be undermined except at times of extreme national emergency. Today is not that time.

On the one hand we all have birth certifications, driving licenses, national insurance numbers whilst an array of information is held on each and every one of us by the issuers of an array of credit, debit and store cards. So what is the objective to holding another means of identification?

In practical terms any obligatory ID scheme is likely to take years to set up and will cost the taxpayer on ongoing fortune to implement and administer. In view of this expense the notion that ID cards could be brought in as a merely temporary measure is likely to receive short shrift from the government. In any case experience tells us that the argument for short-term restrictions on freedom tends to disappear rapidly with the passing of time. Remember, for example, that many of our alcohol licensing retractions were brought in during the First World War as part of a series of measures to improve industrial output - even the last decade or so of commercial deregulation has left many of these antiquated rules intact.

In the current feverish, security-conscious atmosphere the longstanding importance we attach to individual freedom from State intervention seems to have been swept away. Surely it is incumbent upon Messrs Blair and Blunkett to explain precisely how any new laws will protect us from the existing terrorist threat. Let us not forget that this country has for centuries been such a popular haven for migrants precisely because of the safe knowledge that there is reliance upon the traditional value attached to the freedom of the individual and the rule of law. For countless thousands the events of 11 September 2001 have changed their outlook on everything, but if the rest of us really believe that the whole world has changed since these appalling outrages then tacitly we are accepting that the terrorists have won.

There are also serious practical considerations which suggest that ID cards are unlikely to be effective in preventing terrorism. However expensive the technology used, an increasingly sophisticated network of international terrorists will find it possible to forge, or simply steal, an identity. Next we are faced with employing a vast army of public officials who will be needed in order to administer and police this entire scheme. Short of there being virtual continuous surveillance, those citizens - including, presumably any would-be terrorists - not wishing to co-operate in the scheme will be able to go ground with relative ease.

Many civil libertarians have argued that the Police will use the excuse of a compulsory ID card scheme to target foreigners and demand their co-operation and this will make them feel even more alienated. To be honest my fear is the precise opposite. Here in London the morale of the Metropolitan Police continues to be fragile, following the Stephen Lawrence affair and accusations of institutionalised racism. In truth the all pervading culture of political correctness is likely to make it less, rather than more, likely that a policeman will stop a prospective terrorist from an ethnic background and demand to see his identity card.

I have been increasingly concerned over the last two years by the bossy and intolerant attitude of the current government and many of their proposals on law and order in general pander to the worst instincts of our fellow countrymen.

In November 2001 the Queen's Speech proposed the ending of the double jeopardy rule for murder. Along with the introduction of compulsory ID cards we have also been promised a series of measures that will seriously curtail the legal right of criminal suspects and many of those have now been implemented. The important thing to remember with such new laws is that when the State adopts draconian powers against strangers today, they will use them against your friends tomorrow and you the day after. It is easy to be dismissive of a highbrow defence of the "rule of law" but it is especially in such times of national crisis that the rights of the individual must be defended with vigour.

The last time this country did away with compulsory identity cards was 1952, the year in which our current Queen came to the throne. The reintroduction of this most potent symbol of a more authoritarian society must surely be no cause for celebration more than fifty years later.

Source: 29 September 2004