After this, they will play the identity card

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The Independent Online

Fifty-eight young Chinese bodies are lying on mortuary slabs in Kent. Meanwhile, to Hartlepool and Haslemere, Bognor and Billericay, the native breed returns with a merry cry of " Auf Wiedersehen, Kraut". Bellicose bourgeois - frothing barristers and rampaging men from accounts - have, apparently, embraced the tattooed and beer-bellied. England's sole classless game is soccer hooliganism. Nothing unites us like a spot of aggression against a third party.

Fifty-eight young Chinese bodies are lying on mortuary slabs in Kent. Meanwhile, to Hartlepool and Haslemere, Bognor and Billericay, the native breed returns with a merry cry of " Auf Wiedersehen, Kraut". Bellicose bourgeois - frothing barristers and rampaging men from accounts - have, apparently, embraced the tattooed and beer-bellied. England's sole classless game is soccer hooliganism. Nothing unites us like a spot of aggression against a third party.

From both of the two nations the cries are as one: thugs must be kept at home; "economic migrants" must be kept at bay. An economic superpower likes mobility of capital but mobility of unskilled labour is something else.

Two stories, then, with but a common theme: the need for constraint. The violence and the sadness are a politician's opportunity. How long will it be before William Hague drags another blunt arrow out of his charmless quiver and calls for compulsory identity cards? The face that doesn't fit will be stopped on the street and, card-less, dispatched back to China. The proposal will meet at least three of the Tory leader's tests for policy convergence between his rump of a party and the British electorate: superficial attraction for reactionary control freaks, lack of specific detail and nastiness of tone. Yet if it were that easy, one other shameless illiberal, Jack Straw, would have got there first. Instead, the Home Secretary has said that he does not want the issue even raised until after the next election.

Cabinet ministers last discussed identity cards in 1994-95. The debate then showed that the real division in our politics is not between the tired old stage-armies of "left" and "right" but between liberals and the rest. An enthused Michael Howard, always a distressing sight, marshalled the forces of statist social controllers. Peter Lilley, sceptical of the ability of British governments to run anything, led the opposition. Ken Clarke stifled yawns. Michael Portillo hadn't a view. Majorite limpness deflated Howardian zealotry but the real fear was that this would be Tory Poll Tax II. The objects of attack were the feckless few - Peter Lilley's bogeymen, the social security scroungers. But they were exactly the ones who, in the real world, would lose the cards or, "losing" the forms, would never get them in the first place. Lilley foresaw harassed local officials tearing their hair out over a small minority, huge compliance costs and the fickleness of public opinion.

There was no question of government paying for the scheme. Suburban and shire Tories who were gagging for an identity card would soon change their minds once they saw the cards as another tax. There was another Tory nightmare: the British policeman's love of easy implementation would lead to an outbreak of implausible arrests and groundless suspicions if identity cards could not be produced on the highways and the byways.

Five years on, technology has advanced and cards can be encrypted with DNA details. Fingerprinting makes an identity card almost fraud-proof. Even the more swivel-eyed element among Tory libertarians are losing their old principled objections. Populism, after all, is their very own backyard game and ID cards have a tabloid charm.

Our wallets burst more than ever with laminated fragments of information. But the desire to consolidate that information on one card is still wrong - one of those rationalising dreams of sunlit-upland government which dissolve in inevitable disillusion. Why?

Identity cards are a chink in the armour of anti-Europeanism which encases most English authoritarians. They observe one aspect of the continental tradition and wish to import it. But they, of all people, should know that different histories are reflections of different temperaments and circumstances.

Behind the continental card there lies the experience of the Napoleonic centralising state. This has spawned both good and bad results. On the credit side is a republican tradition which displaced craven royalism and elevated the nation into an identity shared by all citizens. In this tradition being a socialist and believing in the state as an agent of rational good can be two different things.

The debit side, of course, is a degree of state order which is alien to English liberalism. England, and then Britain, having united earlier than other countries, did so on the basis of limited government supplemented by strong institutions. European states have needed identity cards as reminders of their authority in a century which saw the subversion and collapse of their institutions. If the English have their "freedoms" - individual, local and property-based - other Europeans have "liberty", a more theoretical, state-led, and rhetorical affair. Identity cards are alien to the one dispensation and natural in the other.

The bureaucratic mind will always want more power. Enforcement of its present, adequate, remit is the harder, more necessary, task. However "professional" they may have been, almost half of the Charleroi rioters had criminal records. Political rhetoric, however, is always easier than administrative practice. Identity cards are back.

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