Sunday, 1 April 2007

Guest Slapper of the Month XV

My April Guest Slapper let me down yesterday. Maybe she thought it was a joke. I frantically looked around for a replacement and my gaze fell on Lulu, who, I knew, had lots to say about those controversial ID cards. Here’s her last-minute Slap. I will be eternally grateful to her. Yes, I will.

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?


  1. The greatest slaps are those that express just what we thought we were thinking. What a fabulous, seering, indicting slap. My thoughts entirely. Thanks Lulu and Bella!

  2. Well Bela you surely came through with a great guest slapper! Good job on finding the guest.

    Good job to you too Lulu. I am very much against ID cards in the U.S. The government can declare ANYONE a terrorist, and hold them indefinitely. (They can already do that.) But if a person MUST carry an ID card, and can be stopped and asked to identify oneself at any time, then if I have voted "wrong" in a past election, then I can be persecuted too easily. ID cards are a step in the wrong direction.

    I have nothing to hide. I do have a drivers' license, passport and other ID. But I don't HAVE to carry those if I'm just walking down the street. I'm happy to be asked to identify myself on an airplane.

    My mother had no ID. Period. She didn't drive, didn't leave the country, didn't use credit. She flew with no problems, but then she died in Feb. 2001 before the 9/11 event. Should this 91 year old lady have been forced to carry an ID card to prove she wasn't a terrorist? One event should not make us lose our rights as citizens.

    I know that you are talking about the UK, but it's the same principle. You can hand over your rights, step by step. It's hard to get them back.

    Sorry to be so wordy, but this is a scary subject I think.

  3. Thank you so much, SS and TLP. It is a scary subject, isn't it?

    Because in the UK it will be organised so that people will have to get an ID card when they renew their passport, some people are renewing their 10-year passports now, years early, to give themselves 10 years before the ID thing becomes necessary for them personally. I've got 5 years to run on mine but am considering it.

    But then, once more than half the population have them, life might start to become difficult for people without a card - I can see it being demanded when you apply for credit in a shop, join your video rental store, buy a second-hand car...

  4. I agree 100%. And it's not so much the fact of the physical card as the way the database behind it is going to be organised that worries me. The UK is apparently the third most spied upon (by its government) nation in the world after China and Malaysia and once the results of that surveillance get stuck in a huge central database and linked to our identity cards, it will be time to emigrate.

    Although not to the US which seems little better to me. I am completely horrified by how it seems nowadays that if you as much as express ill will towards the President's longevity and well being online you can expect a visit from the FBI.

    [Note to the FBI, for Bela's sake and mine I am surely not doing that here. No indeed, gawd bless the little cherub.]

    With regards to the point about the Napoleonic Code though, I think something like that in the UK could make things worse. The basic difference between the French legal system and the British is that you are not allowed to do anything that isn't explicitly permitted in law in France. In the UK, you are allowed to do anything that isn't explicitly forbidden in law. Having said that, countries with French style legal codes seem in general to have a much more rigorous attitude to maintaining citizen privacy than the UK and US do.

  5. As a French person, I wasn’t bothered (or should it be ‘bovvered’) when I heard that ID cards were going to be introduced in the UK: like most of my fellow countrymen/women, I had a carte d’identité from a young age. I started earning a bit of money before I got a passport or a driving licence (which can also be used in most cases) so I needed some form of ID to open an account at the post office and take money out, etc. Also, there was this myth in France that having a carte d’identité was compulsory. When I moved to the UK, I let mine expire and a few years later someone told me I would be in trouble when I next had dealings with the French authorities so I was rather nervous the first time I went to the French Consulate to renew my passport. I thought I would be fined or something because I had not complied with the law. To my amazement, I was told that it wasn’t true: I didn’t need a carte d’identité at all (and not just because I wasn't living in France). The last time I asked (in 1999, i.e. before 2001), it still wasn’t compulsory, but the law may well have changed in the meantime.

    Anyway, I think L may have convinced me that I was wrong to take the introduction of ID cards so lightly and that it may have sinister consequences. I have always believed that if you had nothing to hide you would be OK (I watch lots of detective series and whenever someone refuses to open their mouth so a DNA swab may be taken they are invariably the murderer), but now I’m not so sure. I did have a taste once – years ago – of what it was like to be looked at suspiciously by the police. It was at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport: I had just landed and was going through customs. I was stopped and grilled about where I came from and where I was going, etc. etc. My suitcase wasn’t opened so it wasn’t a question of what I may have been trying to smuggle into the country. I wondered for a while why I’d been singled out that day and came to the conclusion that it must have been because of my red hair, which was frizzy and looked hennaed (although that’s not what I used to dye it). I must have looked North-African to the guy. It is true that if you’re not white your chances of being stopped and asked for your carte d’identité are high and it’s probably unwise not to have one.

    GSE, I'm very fond of the Napoleonic Code: ridiculous, feudal things like the leasehold system (see if anyone is still unfamiliar with it) would not be allowed to continue in France. Remember the Brits are ‘subjects’, not ‘citizens’. That says it all.


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