Since I wrote this, almost nothing has changed, except the government's majority has been cut by 96.
By Quentin Langley
Dateline: 28 September 2001
Throughout the English speaking World the cry has gone up for national identity cards. “No innocent person has anything to worry about”, we are told. I intend to show that this argument is false. But it is also, when you think about, a very peculiar argument. When proposing to spend billions of pounds of taxpayers money people usually begin by spelling out the advantages they expect will accrue from the project. If the best case that can be made in favour of a project is that it will not do any harm, then it is a clear waste of money that could be far better spent on solving crime.
The fact is, however, that in Common Law jurisdictions such as the UK, USA and British Commonwealth, an identity card is very harmful indeed to our traditions of justice and liberty. Despite these dangers, proponents of the scheme have yet to produce a single example of a person that the police have been unable to prosecute through being unable to establish their identity. If we consider for the moment real crimes – crimes against the person or property, and not merely failure to carry an ID card – the scheme would produce not one additional arrest. Of those arrested, not one additional person would be prosecuted. Of those prosecuted not one additional person would be convicted. And of those convicted not one convict would serve an extra day in prison. Not much to be said for a project that would cost billions.
The total ineffectiveness of identity documents in combating terrorism is easily demonstrated. The UK has been plagued by terrorist atrocities for 30 years, most of it originating from the Republic of Ireland. Yet that is the one country from which we do not have passport checks. At no time have the authorities thought that this would be a valuable move in catching terrorists. But then, not one terrorist has ever been arrested because he absent-mindedly wrote “terrorist” in the occupation section of his passport.
The utter uselessness of ID cards as a crime-fighting measure is only the starting point of the case against them. The proposal amounts to a devastating attack on all the traditions of English law.
1. It reverses the presumption of innocence: In order to arrest me the police have to charge me with a specific offence. The idea that I should be expected to account for my presence in any particular locality when the police have no specific crime to investigate is a disgrace. The suggestion that the entire population should be, in that peculiarly English phrase, “known to the authorities” amounts to the most massive reversal of human dignity and liberty.
2. It dismantles the Common Law: The Common Law presumption that all actions are legal unless prohibited according to a consistent set of justiciable principles is the foundation of all human rights. The continental Civil Law, under which all actions must be specifically sanctioned and licensed by the state is incompatible with human rights. It may be argued that some Civil Law jurisdictions – Sweden, for example – have fairly good records on human rights. But in Sweden any liberties which exist are granted as mere whims of the government, not as natural rights of the people. A national ID card is the ultimate expression of the Civil Law and its licensing approach to liberty. Your ID card is your licence to be.
3. It is a massive act of nationalisation: To all intents and purposes a scheme which licenses our very existence nationalises all the persons and property in the Kingdom, transforming us all into chattels of the state. Again, the fact that some Civil Law jurisdictions allow their citizens some liberties is irrelevant. It has always been the case that some slave owners treat their slaves well, but slavery remains objectionable.
4. It is the most massive constitutional change since Magna Carta: By reversing all the traditions of English jurisprudence an ID card scheme amounts to biggest single shift of power away from the people and to the state in our history. The heart of the Magna Carta – that the government itself is subject to the law – becomes an irrelevance as none of us will be governed by law, only by the whims of the government.
5. It restores attainder: It puts the entire population in the same situation as life prisoners released on parole. We are no longer free because we have the right to be, but as a privilege granted by the government. An ID scheme turns us all into lifers released on licence. With one Act of Parliament the Government would indict, convict, sentence and parole us.
I do not wish to surrender my liberties to the state in the hope that they will be honoured, for a while. I do not wish my liberty to licensed and sanctioned by ministers. I was born under the liberties of the Common Law. It is my birthright, and I do not plan to sell it.
Copyright © Quentin Langley 28 September 2001