Thomas Sutcliffe: The identity crisis

It's looking increasingly likely that, sooner rather than later, British citizens may be required to carry identity cards. Many would welcome such a development for safety's sake. But, says Thomas Sutcliffe, we underestimate at our peril the danger to liberty
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We can't be sure what Mrs Joyce Mew would have made of David Blunkett's recent approving murmurs about the introduction of identity cards – these are jittery times, after all, and have startled many of us into unexpected postures – but the very little we know of her life leads me to suspect that she might have taken a dim view.

It was Mrs Mew, you see, who was partially responsible for the withdrawal of universal identity cards after the last war. Asked for her papers by a man who knew perfectly well who she was anyway, something in this otherwise dutiful and unremarkable citizen boiled over. Displaying that peculiarly British virtue of obstreperousness – beloved of Ealing comedies and the popular press – she refused. The resulting court case over her civil disobedience – along with that of a motorist who had also jibbed when ordered to prove that he was who he said he was – eventually lead to a 1953 ruling that British subjects could not be ordered to produce their papers.

The courts were simply catching up with the politicians, since one of Churchill's first actions on arriving in government in 1952 had been to repeal the statutory requirement to carry and display an identity card on demand – a step taken, it was grandly announced, "to free the people". Now that Hitler was defeated, the little Hitlers who had flourished under his influence had had their day.

Commenting on his own decision, Lord Chief Justice Goddard noted of the peremptory demands for identification that "in this country, we have always prided ourselves on the good feeling that exists between the police and the public, and such action tends to make the public resentful of the acts of police, and inclines them to obstruct them rather than assist them". Now, though, we have worse things to worry about than officious policemen and – along with a host of other insecurity measures (as we might accurately term the panicky reflex that invariably follows any large-scale catastrophe) – identity cards are back on the political agenda. Charles Kennedy may have opposed the suggestion at the Lib Dems' party conference yesterday, but he did so – unusually in post-war history – at a time when opposition appears to be very much a minority view. Though identity cards have found public approval in past opinion polls, the reaction has always lacked passion – now, the figures are more like 80-90 per cent, and The Sun is shining for the bureaucrats of security.

The problem for the civil-liberty groups is that their worst-case scenarios suddenly look wan and even risible alongside the lurid realities of the World Trade Centre. Arguing against the introduction of identity cards in a recent paper, Charter 88 tried to summon a spirit of Mewsian obstinacy in their dangerously complacent readers: "Imagine," they wrote, "the police are able to stop you in the street and demand to see your ID." It might have been unnerving once, but right now, most people are able to imagine something a great deal worse. The balance between individual liberty and public safety – for years tilted on the side of our right to remain anonymous – appears to have been affected by the falling dust in Manhattan.

Suddenly, Big Brother takes on a less bullying aspect. Perhaps he might protect us rather than oppress us. And in this world turned upside-down, the arguments of civil libertarians against identity cards can easily begin to sound like arguments for. Writing almost 10 years ago – after the Berlin Wall had fallen, and history was reported to be considering its permanent retirement – Andrew Puddephatt, of Charter 88, warned darkly that "it provides a useful way of logging the details of a whole range of dissident groups". But when the dissidence becomes as bloody as it did earlier this month, that can sound like a very useful tool indeed.

Paranoia hasn't always been the most vigorous promoter of the identity-card notion. Practicality has its arguments, too. The idea was first introduced in Britain – in the form of a National Certificate of Registration – to enable men to prove that they hadn't dodged the draft, and it served a similar purpose in the Second World War, where its introduction was knowingly lubricated against the friction of popular prejudice by the insistence that it was necessary practically for rationing arrangements. In 1939, the Registrar-General advised the government that "a close association between national registration and food rationing would benefit both. The former would gain politically from an association with food rather than conscription".

Even today, attempts to raise the possibility of universal identity cards are almost invariably accompanied by arguments about the convenience of a one-card solution to all your verification needs (opponents point out that the convenience will largely be a matter of avoiding artificial obstacles that were non-existent before the cards became compulsory). What worries opponents is what they memorably call "function creep" – that a device introduced for one task can be employed for something far more sinister. It's a fear that is not confined to the political left: "The world might be more secure if we all had unique bar codes tattooed on our foreheads," the right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens conceded just the other day, "but most of us would reckon it too high a price to pay."

As that tart sentence demonstrates, paranoia takes a remarkably even-handed view of this matter. It might well generate the knee-jerk instinct to catalogue and record everyone in the land, in the delusory belief that perfect supervision is just a matter of bureaucratic application, but it also animates those opposed to any extension of the state's control over our lives. For every commentator who argues that "those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear", there will be another who points out that an identity card is simply waste paper without a bureaucratic apparatus to check, collate and file all the information.

David Blunkett's odd suggestion that wider powers for the police might be necessary to prevent Britain from becoming a police state, will have struck more than one mistrustful citizen as an echo of that old dark paradox – to save the village it was necessary to destroy it. And just in case practicality is still propping up the desire for order, they point out – truthfully – that identity cards did nothing to prevent the Métro bombings in Paris or terrorist attacks in Turkey – both countries that require individuals to carry cards. In the first two years of the Second World War, no less than 500,000 people lost their identity papers – a statistic that reminds us of just how quickly notionally rigorous systems succumb to the wear and tear of human fecklessness.

There is a substantial psychological hurdle to overcome here. It is telling that the New Oxford Dictionary's entry for the word "identity" should offer, as its very first example of usage, the phrase "he knows the identity of the bombers". In standard English usage, "identity" is closely dogged by this assumption of criminality, and to be identified is to be singled out – either by the victim at an identity parade or by the inexorable spotlight of some major investigation. Culprits are identified, not honest citizens. But there is also quite another meaning to the word – one which derives from its Latin root (idem – the same) and which may well have been brought into play by the events in America. That is the sense of identity as a badge of community – as one might say "I identify myself as a supporter of democracy". We shouldn't underestimate the profound psychological appeal of sacrifice in the current climate. President Bush and Mayor Giuliani's appeals to American citizens to bolster the national economy with a grimly determined spending spree collided with this instinct to self-denial, the urge to artificially share much worse deprivations.

But it is possible that identity cards may appeal as a different kind of balm to this public impulse. You've given money, you may even have given blood – now you can surely spare a little bit of your personal liberty. Not a few of us, it seems, like the idea of being "card-carrying" citizens at a time like this.

In this light, the move towards identity cards offers a kind of enlistment in the cause – a false one in many ways, and an illusion of true commitment, but curiously appealing all the same. Personally, I hope the spirit of Maysian recalcitrance holds sway – but I wouldn't be surprised if the Government finds the tide of public opinion in its favour. Beyond the Fringe included a memorable sketch in which an RAF squadron leader assembled a group of pilots in their Nissen hut and announced – with sombre gravity – that "what we need at this stage of the war is a futile gesture" – something of no practical benefit that would nevertheless boost civilian morale and make them feel something was being done. With the idea of identity cards, David Blunkett may well have found his equivalent.