Britons never can be free if we have identity cards

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The Independent Online

Someone once observed that the aphorism about absolute power tending to corrupt absolutely may be true, but it isn't the problem. The real problem is the corruption presented by minimum power.

Someone once observed that the aphorism about absolute power tending to corrupt absolutely may be true, but it isn't the problem. The real problem is the corruption presented by minimum power.

If someone is in a position to exert power over just one tiny aspect of your life, they will invariably exert that power. The man in charge of the car park at a village féte will tell you exactly where you may park, and probably shout at you if you disregard him.

That, really, is one's objection to the whole idea of the national identity card, that it gives the agents of the state a new element of control over our lives, which will inevitably be widely abused to inconvenience and irritate, and with no very obvious benefits in return.

The Government, announcing its plans, says that it needs to overcome some practical questions first, but agrees with the principle of the thing. This may mean that the whole matter is to be shelved indefinitely, and they hope not to start debating the principles of something which may not happen for years, if ever. But it is still very much on the agenda, and if the Government seriously believes this will improve the quality of our lives, it deserves a challenge.

What will the national ID card be there for? We are told that it will serve, among other things, as a certificate of entitlement to National Health services; no-one could imagine for a moment, however, that a hospital would turn away anyone with serious injuries, say, without their proper documentation. In any case, what kind of burden on NHS services do these people represent?

No, the real reason, almost certainly, is to allow the state, in the form of the law enforcement agencies, some sort of instant access to anyone's identity, their record, and who knows what other information? However minimal the initial information encoded in such cards, once they were in existence, it is easy to imagine how they would extend in scope.

It would be useful, someone will argue, for a person's criminal record to be registered, so that a policeman can find out immediately whether someone loitering on Coldharbour Lane has previous convictions for drug dealing. That seems rational; but what if someone, waiting to pick up a child from school is asked for his details and they include a conviction for a consensual sexual offence committed between adults, such as cottaging?

As time goes on, further details are readily added to the database. Would it not be useful, someone may suggest, to have medical details easily to hand? Epileptics, for instance, are not always recognised as having a fit; diabetics in a crisis may be ignored under the misapprehension that they are drunk. Wouldn't that be useful to know about? Now, what about histories of mental illness, such as schizophrenia or even, perhaps, depression? Should not a policeman know if a person, standing alone on a railway bridge at night, has previously attempted suicide, and if so, how many times?

You can see how it would go, and the initial steps would seem entirely rational. If you have nothing to hide, the mantra goes, you have nothing to fear. It's an ingenious argument, because it suggests that anyone daring to argue against this does have some dark secret. Well, even if you have no such dark secret, there are many things which should not be made accessible to the police. It is none of their business, and the mere existence of such a card will create an atmosphere of control and bored minor harassment.

I've heard entirely credible stories about bored Greek policeman stopping foreign homosexuals, or members of racial minorities on the street, and then bunging them into the cells for a few hours because they did not have their ID on them. There's no reason why that shouldn't start happening here, once the ID card exists.

The important point is that in this country, unlike the rest of Europe, there has been a historical conviction that one's life is not under the constant supervision of the police. They may not, in my view, inquire where you are going or what you are doing without some very good reason.

A few years ago, in an interesting incident, a gentleman was stopped by a policeman while walking late at night in a dubious area of London and asked where he was going and what he was doing. He answered, quite rightly, that it was a public highway, he was a British citizen, and it was none of the policeman's damned business. Somehow, it got to court, where his view was handsomely confirmed, but how much longer would that important liberty last after the introduction of ID cards? Not long. There is absolutely no doubt, either, that once the things are introduced, however horribly and oppressively they alter the national atmosphere, they could never, ever, be withdrawn.

Some countries have sacrificed the liberty of the ordinary citizen, and their crime statistics are no doubt the object of great envy in the Home Office. But in the end, you can't have both. We can, if we choose, continue in the certainty that the greater part of our lives are nobody's business but our own; or, if we choose, we could transform our society into something resembling Singapore. There, the streets are clean; crime is low; and no-one ever tells a policeman to mind his own damned business. No sane person could want that.