Tony Blair's next personal crusade on the domestic stage, as he attempts to secure his historical legacy, will be over his flagship security policy: the introduction of national identity cards with a view to building up a national register of persons. This register will contain, amongst other things, a database of fingerprints and other biometric indicators of those on it. Blair's attempts to have the Bill passed last term, before the election, were frustrated by the House of Lords; yet he remains determined, in the face of cross-party opposition (including a significant number of his own backbenchers) to see it through in the early stages of this term. He is even, apparently, prepared to use the Parliament Acts (legislation in 1911 and 1949 designed to reduce the power of the unelected upper house over the Commons) to ensure that this Bill becomes law regardless of the Lords' opposition. Early signs, however, are that things will not run smoothly for him this time around either.
National identity cards are an oddity in terms of European public opinion. Generally speaking, the UK public has historically been very much against the idea in principle - in much the same manner as the US, where, despite the introduction of a whole raft of liberty-curbing measures in the wake of September 11th, national ID cards do not seem to be on the agenda. In continental Europe, on the other hand, they are viewed as utterly uncontroversial parts of daily life; even convenient, in many situations, as for example when travelling between certain European countries, they fulfill the role of a passport.
In Europe at least, the events of September 11th do seem to have effected some sort of rapprochement on this issue: for the first time ever, the British public generally seem to be in favour of the introduction of these cards in principle. This, of course, has much to do with a sustained period of Government propaganda, during which time we have been informed that ID cards are in essence similar to supermarket loyalty cards and yet will fight terrorism, reduce benefit and identity fraud, increase the efficiency of the NHS, control immigration and generally help workers and boost Government coffers by ensuring that no-one is employed "on the black". One almost wonders how on earth we manged to survive for so long without them.
Although these claims helped to ensure that the issue took a back seat during the election campaign, it is now getting pushed to the forefront again. There are a number of reasons for this, perhaps most powerfully concerns over the safety of a computer database from failure or hackers, and over the potential cost of the scheme (the LSE has recently produced a report stating that each individual - the Treasury is refusing to pay - might have to pay up to £300). Moreover, recent reports that the Government is planning to defray the costs involved by selling the information on the register to certain "accredited" private companies have made many people uneasy. However, the classical objection, that the cards represent an unwarranted infringement on personal freedoms, has also been regaining strength. The most notable recent manifestation of this was when the major trade union UNISON - whose members include the civil servants that will be responsible for ensuring the functioning of the system - voted overwhelmingly to reject it on the grounds that "it's an intrusion on civil liberties". Nor are they the first union to do so.
So why are we, technical worries aside, so concerned over the introduction of identity cards and a national register containing our biometric details? One common and powerful argument is that given by the head of the NO2ID campaign: "The system offers a ready-made police-state tool for a future government less trustworthy than the current one". Certainly, it is terrifying to think what either fascism or communism might have made of such technology. This, however, completely fails to explain the differences between the US and UK and the rest of Europe: the former object to ID cards on these grounds whereas in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, not to mention many of the new Accession Countries - all countries with direct experience of these types of regimes - they are viewed as essentially uncontroversial. There is also, perhaps, something a little dishonest about the claim if it is made as the sole reason for rejecting ID cards; many of us feel a deeper unease, a more profound and less readily expressible sense of discomfort, at the idea of a national biometric database than the fear of the untrustworthiness of future governments can account for. We quite simply don't want to be part of it; it strikes us as being a step too far, perhaps without being able to express why in a full and honest manner.
Of course, the frequent "Big Brother" comparisons, often viewed by those on the continent as exaggerated, don't help. However, with the proposals for the massively increased use of biometric information from fingerprints to retinal scans, they might just be accurate. In this regard, it is interesting to note that proposals to include biometric details on identity cards in France has sparked considerable opposition. Perhaps we're not so different, after all.