Go ahead and identify me, if you can

At at time when identities are less and less fixed, any introduction of ID cards is likely to be thwarted
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The Independent Online
Almost 50 years after their postwar abolition, identity cards are returning to the British political scene. The issuing of such documents carries with it an air of centralised bureaucratic control and day-to- day surveillance to which Britain is unlikely to warm. With the publication of a Green Paper imminent, compulsory ID cards seems likely to be the next great theme for impassioned political debate.

Like many other issues raised by European union, the question of identity cards does not fit smoothly into orthodox distinctions between left and right. Anarchists and little-Englanders alike will portray such documentation as means to the end of barcoded citizens and a database superstate. And no doubt the upright citizens of the law-and-order lobby will take pleasure in declaring that they'll be delighted to carry the card since they do no wrong and have nothing to hide. There will clearly be no shortage of suggestions that anyone opposing such a benign administrative measure must be some sort of enemy within.

In spite of the importance of these issues, there is also something about the impending debate on ID cards that makes the subject feel strangely inconsequential. It is certainly naive to believe that British subjects are presently uncounted and free. National Insurance numbers, voting registers, bank cards, passports and driving licences are among the many registrations already in place. Many people would doubtless welcome the opportunity to consolidate their wallets and files. But remember the chaos when the government tried to register everyone for the poll tax.

It is also likely that many of the most significant developments promised by the introduction of identity cards - not least the fact that in principle they would allow for some relaxation of Britain's border controls - seem extremely unlikely to be fulfilled. And even if a British government were to support such moves, it seems that the use of passports between the UK and the Continent would disappear only to be replaced by more random - and potentially more sinister - internal checks and controls.

Perhaps there is also a sense in which the issue, and the issuing, of ID cards does not hinge on the merits of the arguments at all. The real question is one of consent. Everything depends on the extent to which the British population would tolerate and co-operate with such perceived infringements of its liberty.

One assumes there are few libertarian militia hiding out in the British countryside. But there is a sense of ambient resistance to new manifestations of surveillance and regulation and, as reactions to the poll tax and the Criminal Justice Act have made clear, this can often turn into unruly dispute.

It is rare that such groundswells of indignation make much difference to the laws of the land. Citizens of more social democratic countries find it hard to imagine how life goes on in a country which can't drink past midnight and has to wait months for censors to deliberate on its films.

Nevertheless, the rhetorics of tolerance and freedom, so strikingly absent from British political debate, can often function elsewhere as cover for rather more insidious regulatory mechanisms. And the fact that the British state makes so little effort to conceal its more authoritarian moves does have a positive side. At least people know where they stand (or kneel) when political power is overtly displayed. They are also more likely to be willing and able to avoid its grip and find loopholes in its laws.

As recent hauls of fake perfume and currency suggest, Britain is riddled with thriving networks of sophisticated black marketeers and bootleggers. It is already clear that identity cards will provide a panoply of new occasions for forgers and counterfeiters to indulge in the double pleasure of putting cash in hand and spanners in the works. It already seems plausible to suggest that the introduction of identity cards would do as much to undermine moves towards a more regimented society as it would to reinforce them. If Britain's growing grassroots antipathy to bureaucratic and legal controls cannot interrupt the introduction of ID cards, it may well succeed in making them unworkable.

Ironically, these cards are being put on the table at a time when the whole question of identity is increasingly up for grabs. No doubt there are still vast swathes of people entirely comfortable with their own sense of who and where and what they are. But the end of the 20th century is also a time of unprecedented confusion for all senses of identity. And while this is a crisis which unsettles much of middle England, a younger generation seems more than content to leave all notions of fixed identity behind.

A wide range of technical, economic and cultural factors have rendered the life-long profession, trade or career a thing of the past, and it is certainly no longer easy - or sensible - to identify with the job one does (as in "I am a bank manager.") Life-long relationships and the social and familiar roles are increasingly untenable. By themselves, these factors have been enough to throw individuals, families and communities into crisis. Even so, and no matter how used people had grown to identifying with their working lives, there are far more crucial sources of identity than this, and even greater crises ahead.

Generation X and its successors are less likely to have been uniformly shaped by stable nuclear families and strong communities, and single-minded purpose is no longer a prevalent adolescent theme. Sexuality, and even gender, are increasingly prone to mutation: to be unproblematically gay or straight, or male or female, is becoming as difficult as being a bank manager. More alarming still, and prompted by the proliferation and speeding development of information technologies, there is talk of artificial intelligences, cyborgs, and a possibility that humans have fatally cross-bred with their machines to produce some new post-human spawn.

For people used to the security of continuity and a strong sense of who they are in the world, all this is extremely disturbing news. But many of the young have already learnt to deal with the identity confusions of the new world disorder and even to revel in the freedoms it brings. What their parents' generation may have experienced as the comforts of a fixed identity can now feel like the walls of the padded cell.

And perhaps this is the most disturbing thought of all: that while one generation mourns the loss of its senses of self, place and purpose, another seems to thrive in this new world of identity crisis and collapse. Perhaps those traumatised by this process really do need identity cards, if only to remember who they are. But a lawless streak runs through today's last waves of second-millennium teenagers. They are not looking to reverse the trends that are so rapidly confusing identity. On the contrary, they spend much of their time making efforts to lose all senses of identity in the hallucinatory depths of dance parties and raves. They will certainly take some persuading not to lose their identity cards as well.