I Don’t Want to be an April Fool.
This is a slap that was never going to be a slap. In fact, for the past year or two, ever since it was first mentioned, I have always thought I would slap the people who were against the idea, for being so British and insular.
But recently I’ve changed my mind.
I’m talking about ID cards. Specifically, the introduction of them in the UK.
In the past months of public discussions, I always used to accept the argument that, if you had any reservations about carrying an ID card, it meant you had something to hide. That law-abiding citizens had nothing to fear from them, and the only reason you might have to be unwilling to prove who you were to anyone who asked you would be a guilty one. They have had them in France, a perfectly civilised democratic country, for tens of years, I would add, and no one makes a fuss there. Anyway, what’s the difference between a driving licence or passport and an ID card?
But things I’ve read, and seen, recently have really undermined my certainty. And no, it’s not about the £88 or whatever it is we are to be charged for the privilege of getting one.
First, as a middle-class, middle-aged white woman, I have to accept that the likelihood of my ID card being demanded for no particular reason by a passing policeman on my way to Tesco is minimal. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be concerned about the extra hassle it will cause a young Asian man who’s not wearing a suit and tie – every survey shows the UK police force suffer from ‘institutional racism’, and when doing jury service I saw to my dismay how ‘stop and search’ rights were part of the everyday lives of black kids.
Secondly, the ‘nothing to hide’ argument doesn’t work when taken to its extreme. I am not a terrorist or a drug dealer, but that really, really doesn’t mean I want the intelligence services listening in on my phone line or scanning my e-mail.
Thirdly, the belief that the innocent will have no problems with ID cards assumes that the computer system set up to administer them will be pretty much faultless. And there is simply no British system in the last ten years that hasn’t caused incredible mishaps and misunderstandings and trouble for ordinary people. The new NHS patient-linking data system has been abandoned, as has the computerised system for finding junior doctors a job. You can’t book a train journey without having to sort through up to 36 different prices for the same route, from £12 to £250. The congestion charging system in London sends the bailiffs out to repossess the property of non-fine-payers who in fact had their car stolen and trashed 8 years previously and police reports prove it. And they have written five times with documentary evidence of that fact but no actual person with common sense ever looks at the letters. The child support agency endlessly pursues people who happen to have the same name but live 200 miles away from real absentee fathers, while single mothers struggle to pay their bills. The new passport system, when installed, resulted in daily nine-hour queues down the street for passports for nearly a year before its ‘teething problems’ were resolved. Credit reference agencies blacklist you because someone who lived in your house five years ago didn’t pay their mobile phone bill, even though they are a married man called Robert Black and you are a single woman called Susan White. My GP tells me to pester the hospital myself for my test results because the hospital computer will never connect up patient with GP once you’ve left the building, and she, she says, cannot possibly remember to chase my results for me because she has 3,000 people to think about. The tax office changes its address without informing you, and when you send in your tax return by overnight signed-for mail in plenty of time, it takes five days because they have to forward it on from Cornwall to Newcastle, and then they fine you for being late. Incompetence rules every administrative system, because the people entering working life now and for the past 15 years have received an education that would shame a rogue African state in the middle of a civil war, and cannot actually form a sentence or add two sums.
Fourthly, and most importantly, the ‘ID cards are innocent for innocent people’ argument totally and entirely depends upon there always being a democratic government in place, with a reasonable view on human rights and privacies, to whom one can apply peacefully and democratically to change unfair laws, and whose administrative wings – the police, social services, the courts, the tax office, the armed forces – remain under its control and basically benign. We are incredibly complacent about this in Britain – we don’t bother going to vote, we don’t protest, we sleepwalk our way into the erosion of rights, we’re scared to speak up and offend anyone or stand out from the crowd. We really assume that the situation in Europe today (well, of 20 years ago, actually) – of the West, and late 20th-century western democracy, being forever in charge of the thinking world and hopefully even in the ascendancy – will be the status quo forever. But history does not back this up, and nor do recent events. This struck me at the theatre last week, watching Athol Fugard’s play Sizwe Banzi is Dead, which is about the monstrous Kafkaesque hoops a man – a black man, of course – is made to jump through simply to be allowed to leave his home town, get a job somewhere else and send money home to his wife and children. It’s the tiniest leap – it would take the tiniest event in history (like 9/11) or a simple change of government – to instantly, or, even worse, gradually and sneakily, turn ID cards into a tool for population control in the name of ‘national security’. All that even an elected government has to do is announce ‘special circumstances’ and they can detain people for three months without charge (in the UK, or goodness knows how long in Guantanamo). A move to make people stay in or go back to the city where they were born would be the next step – it’s been a motif throughout history, in communist states, in Russia, right back to the time of Herod. There doesn’t even have to be a pressing reason, it might just strike a government minister as less trouble that way.
And there is a difference between the UK and, say, France. France has a written code or constitution dating back to Napoleon. It enshrines the separation of Church and State, so no religious fundamentalist leader can worm his way into power and change the rules from within. No one politician, in fact, can ever trespass beyond agreed limits. And the French people are ever alert to any erosion of their liberties and take to the streets the minute they are threatened.
So now I’m most certainly slapping ID cards, with all the force I can muster. Is there anyone out there who can change my mind back again, and convince me I’ve nothing to worry about?