We start the year in Britain with a challenge to our essential nature, for 2008 might turn out to be the year when we decide to rip up the Magna Carta.
Among the basic civil rights in this country, there has always been, at least in theory, an inclination towards liberal democracy, which includes a tolerance of an individual’s right to privacy.
We are born free and have the right to decide what freedom means, each for ourselves, and to have control over our outward existence, yet that will no longer be the case if we agree to identity cards.
Britain is already the most self-watching country in the world, with the largest network of security cameras; a new study suggests we are now every bit as poor at protecting privacy as Russia, China and America.
But surveillance cameras and lost data will prove minuscule problems next to ID cards, which will obliterate the fundamental right to walk around in society as an unknown.
Some of you may have taken that freedom so much for granted that you forget how basic and important it is, but in every country where ID cards have ever been introduced, they have changed the relation between the individual and the state in a way that has not proved beneficial to the individual. I am not just talking Nazi Germany, but everywhere.
It is also a spiritual matter: a person’s identity is for him or her to decide and to control, and if someone decides to invest the details of their person in a higher authority, then it should not be the Home Office.
The compulsory ID card scheme is a sickness born of too much suspicion and too little regard for the meaning of tolerance and privacy in modern life.
Hooking individuals up to a system of instantly accessible data is an obscenity – not only a system waiting to be abused, but a system already abusing.
Though we don’t pay much attention to moral philosophy in the mass media now – Bertrand Russell having long been exchanged for the Jeremy Kyle Show – it may be worth remembering that Britain has a tradition of excellence when it comes to distinguishing and upholding basic rights and laws in the face of excessive power.
The ID cards issue should be raising the most stimulating arguments about who we are and how we are – but no, it is not: we nose the grass like sheep and prepare to be herded once again.
It seems the only person speaking up with a broad sense of what this all means is Nick Clegg, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, who has devoted much of his new year message to underlining the sheer horribleness of the scheme.
He has said he will go to jail rather than bow to this “expensive, invasive and unnecessary” affront to “our natural liberal tendencies”.
I have to say I cheered when I heard this, not only because I agree, but because it is entirely salutary, in these sheepish times, to see a British politician express his personal feelings so strongly.
Many people on the other side of the argument make what might be called a category mistake when they say: “If you’ve nothing to hide, why object to carrying a card?”
Making it compulsory to prove oneself, in advance, not to be a threat to society is an insult to one’s right not to be pre-judged or vetted.
Our system of justice is based on evidence, not on prior selection, and the onus on proving criminality is a matter for the justice system, where proof is of the essence.
Many regrettable things occur as a result of freedom – some teenage girls get pregnant, some businessmen steal from their shareholders, some soldiers torture their enemies, some priests exploit children – but these cases would not, in a liberal society, require us to end the private existence of all people just in case.
If the existence of terrorists, these few desperate extremists, makes it necessary for everybody in Britain to carry an ID card then it is a price too high.
It is more than a price, it is a defeat, and one that we will repent at our leisure. Challenges to security should, in fact, make us more protective of our basic freedoms; it should, indeed, make us warm to our rights.
In another age, it was thought sensible to try to understand the hatred in the eyes of our enemies, but now it seems we consider it wiser just to devalue the nature of our citizenship.
What’s more – it won’t work. Nick Clegg has pointed to the gigantic cost and fantastic hubris involved in this scheme, but recent gaffes with personal information have shown just how difficult it is to control and protect data.
A poll of doctors undertaken by doctors.net.uk has today shown that a majority of doctors believe that the National Programme for IT – seeking to contain all the country’s medical records – will not be secure.
In fact, it is causing great worry. Many medical professionals fear that detailed information about each of us will soon be whizzing haphazardly from one place to another, leaving patients at the mercy of the negligent, the nosy, the opportunistic and the exploitative.
“Only people with something to hide will fear the introduction of compulsory ID cards.”
That is what they say, and it sounds perfectly practical. If you think about it for a minute, though, it begins to sound less than practical and more like an affront to the reasonable (and traditional) notion that the state should mind its own business.
In a just society, what you have to hide is your business, until such times as your actions make it the business of others. Infringing people’s rights is not an ethical form of defence against imaginary insult.
You shouldn’t have to tell the government your eye colour if you don’t want to, never mind your maiden name, your height, your personal persuasions in this or that direction, all to be printed up on a laminated card under some compulsory picture, to say you’re one of us.
You weren’t born to be one of us, that is something you choose, and to take the choice out of it is wrong. It marks the end of privacy, the end of civic volition, the end of true citizenship.