Home Secretary David Blunkett said today that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant is to blame for scepticism about the government's plans for a compulsory national identity card. He was speaking at a meeting at the Institute of Public Policy Research, restating his arguments in favour of the scheme.
The British public's fear of ID cards is down to our "history of legitimate doubts about the intentions of the state, reinforced by what we saw in terms of communism and fascism over the last century", Blunkett said. "It was writers like Kant who first took the view that there is something suspicious about government activity, and that if a government is up to something, it must be about removing freedoms."
Nothing could be further from the truth, he argues. In fact, the ID card will pave the way for a more tolerant society, with greater social cohesion. It will be useful in the fight against racism, and won't be a big-brother style surveillance tool, at all. It is now time to take on the sceptics, and those who argue that the government's intentions cannot be taken at face value, he says.
Trust us. We're nice.
"We can build in systems, unlike the private sector, that protect us from encroachment on those areas of our lives that are private," he said.
The private sector reference is one of the central themes in his new approach. He explains that since we all quite happily sign over our personal information, details of spending habits and so on to the private sector when we sign up for loyalty cards, we shouldn't really have any objection to the idea of an ID card.
Of course this is daft - loyalty cards only track your spending habits with one particular store, or group of stores, or maybe partners. They are also subject to data protection laws that restrict what the companies can do with the data they gather. Don't misunderstand this point, we are not arguing in favour of loyalty cards, per se, just pointing out that they don't track your medical history, travel in and out of the country, access to state benefits, criminal record or even necessarily your address.
Blunkett has certainly changed the tone of his approach. He is far more conciliatory, putting forward a picture of a benevolent government, with much less of the usual scare mongering. He has acknowledged that an ID card will not put an end to crime, organised or otherwise, nor will it prevent terrorist attacks. He is back to describing the card in terms of the services it will allow access to, rather than as the killer weapon in the fight against terrorism.
Instead, he proposes that the card will build social cohesion, by ensuring that access to "free" public services, like medical care, is granted only to those who are entitled to it. This, Blunkett argues, will help in the fight against racism. After all, who could possibly object to Johnny Foreigner when he is provably only using the public services he's allowed to use. Xenophobes are known to be receptive to rational argument, after all.
His argument for having one in the first place is simple: the biometric gathering and technology development is going to happen anyway, because of the need for biometric passports. We need these because otherwise going to America would mean having to pay for a $100 visa per person per trip, which is inconvenient, and expensive. And once the groundwork is laid, why not do the extra little bit of work needed to build a secure database and issue the cards? It'll only cost £15 per person on top of the fee for the passport.
The timeline on the march towards compulsory cards is also getting clearer. Once plenty of people have signed up, the government can put an order before parliament that it be made mandatory, which Blunkett wants to have happen within the next ten years. ®
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