Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Why not make ID cards out of sew-on fabric, in the shape of stars?

In the past couple of months, those of us who flatter ourselves that we are members of the group disparagingly referred to as “the Liberati” by the now – possibly temporarily - retired David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, have been tempted to delude ourselves into believing rumours that the National Identity Register project was suffocating under its’ own weight. Leaks from Whitehall suggested that the word on the Civil Service street was that spiralling costs and technical difficulties, combined with the Government’s ongoing ineptitude when it comes to implementing large IT projects would result in the whole wretched endeavour being shelved. It was tempting to heave a tentative sigh of relief, to take a step back and think that we’d won, the whole scheme was being sunk by the Government’s hubris. However at a speech at the Institute of Public Policy research, Home Office Minister Liam Byrne reassured us that there has been no such change of tack. The scheme may be more expensive than expected (well, not really expected so much as wishful costed) and experience some teething problems, but it’s still going ahead, albeit maybe in little baby steps rather than in leaps and bounds.

As of last week, anyone over 16 years of age applying for their first UK passport will still be summoned to an “interview centre” and have all their details recorded on the National Identity Register, which is the iceberg under the cards, even if ID cards themselves are not due to make an appearance until 2008. Initially, they won’t be carried by UK citizens but by people that are either resented by the natives, or ignored, namely foreigners. The Pine Marten associates with a motley collection of these rogues, and although they are generally sympathetic to its’ opposition to the scheme, they do tend to think that at the end of the day, they’re not actually affected by all this. Thanks to Liam Byrne, the Pine Marten has the distinctly unpleasant task of telling them that they are in fact, completely wrong. As of April 2008, all foreign nationals wishing to live in the UK for more than three months, including EU nationals, will have the pleasure of being the first UK residents to be "interviewed”, fingerprinted, scanned and issued with ID Cards. Welcome to the UK!

Singling out foreign nationals as guinea pigs is politically pretty astute. First of all, most people arriving in the UK will not realise that this isn’t normal, that UK residents do not carry ID cards, and therefore they probably won’t make a fuss. As they’re all from different places rather than a single hazy "abroad", they probably won’t discuss it amongst themselves much. From UK citizens’ perspective well, most probably won’t care, so the scheme will be tested in a low-key sort of way, to make sure that it’s ready to go live on a bigger scale. Many of those who do care about such things don’t really like foreigners coming to the UK anyway, and if they’re not sure, they can always be told that this will keep out benefit scroungers, health tourists, illegal immigrants, asylum seekers or whatever other savages the Home Office, the media or UKIP and their ilk decide are the unpalatable flavour of the month.

(Incidentally, has anyone else noticed that the United Kingdom Passport Service is now called the United Kingdom Identity and Passport Service or UKIPs? Coincidence probably, but also maybe a deliberate clue left by an understatedly dissident civil servant).

There are three main points that flow from this in addition to the standard arguments surrounding the scheme. The first is admittedly paranoid, but it does seem that the Home Office is particularly adept at giving everyone a false sense of security about the National Identity Register. It’s not beyond the realm of fantasy to think that leaks regarding the possible landing in the long grass of the scheme were not entirely unplanned. What is more certain is that the singling out of foreign nationals as an ideal test group for the introduction of ID cards is underhanded and manipulative. The second point is of a more symbolic significance: singling out an unpopular minority with neither the means nor the knowledge to defend itself on a tide of popular scapegoating is practice with a long and despicable history. It is deeply worrying that UK citizens live in a state that has no qualms about using such means. This is callous and morally repulsive both to UK citizens and to foreign nationals, hundreds of thousands of which have lived in the country for many years, mostly without being treated as second-rate residents. Finally, the shrill voices that make such a deception on behalf of government effective are always loud and forceful, their arguments as simple as they are flawed. But they’re not the majority. The majority are those who do not oppose ID cards actively because they do not think it will affect them, and so they don’t speak up, they don’t act. And if they don’t, they’ll find themselves wearing metaphorical sew-on stars on their metaphorical lapels before they can say “police state”.