Tuesday 20 June 2006

A question of identity

We have become so inured to the horrors of Iraq that reports of them no longer carry anything like the impact that they should. Nevertheless, I was particularly struck by one line in the accounts of 21 teenage students being dragged off buses and killed earlier this month. It was the one describing how the gunmen methodically checked their identity cards so that they knew which ones to kill and which to spare.

Now, I don’t think we actually need another argument against the introduction of identity cards here. But if we did, you have to admit that is a pretty good one. And don’t tell me that Britain isn’t Iraq. Iraq wasn’t in the state it is in before we helpfully invaded it alongside the Americans, in the interests of its better governance. Yes, it was a pretty foul dictatorship, and the sectarian killings were the work of the state rather than freelance enthusiasts. Yet overall it was, by current standards, relatively peaceful and stable.

But we have other and better arguments than that. We know that identity cards won’t help to combat terrorism. Spain has had them for years, and a fat lot of good they did in preventing the Madrid train bombs.

We also know that they won’t help to control illegal immigration, not least because you won’t need one unless you are going to be in the country for more than three months.

But most convincingly of all, why would any nation in its right mind hand over up to £19 billion to set up a national biometric database to the Home Office? An organisation that has been politely described as ‘not fit for purpose’, and which has a proven track record of being unable to organise refreshments in a brewery.

That’s before we even start to think about the litany of failed IT projects right across Government, most recently and spectacularly in the NHS.

Of course, the great national biometric database is presented as a boon to us all in helping to protect our own identities, but it doesn’t explain what will happen to those who find that their documentation has been stolen or cloned by someone who turns up before them in the ID card queue. I look forward to regular stories about people desperately trying to prove who they really are, to a State which insists that they are impostors. Just think of all those unfortunates who were wrongly branded as criminals by Home Office incompetence. Think, and prepare to weep.

This is a classic example of what Hitler used to call The Big Lie: ‘We’re from the Government, and we’re here to help’. Identity cards and the database behind them are not a public service. They’re an instrument of social control designed to change fundamentally the relationship between the British subject (or citizen, if you prefer) and Government.

The proposal that we should all queue up at our local police stations to be fingerprinted and iris-scanned like common criminals – and, what’s more, fork out around £100 each for the privilege – is so utterly outrageous that I am amazed we haven’t seen the sort of public protests that would make the poll tax riots look like a nursery school nature ramble.

Perhaps we are all placing our faith in the hopeless ineptitude of those charged with organising this post-1984 nightmare, and believe in our hearts that it will never happen. I hope that is right. But if it does come to pass, I can say with confidence that hell will freeze over before I volunteer to participate. And HM Government will duly retaliate by making it impossible for me to drive a car, leave the country or access my pension or the NHS.

But why worry? There’s always a way around these little local difficulties. As so many in other countries have already discovered, there’s no need to go to the trouble of obtaining an official identity card, when the forged ones are cheaper and every bit as convincing.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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