July 3 2005
ID cards are to Blair what poll tax was to ThatcherMICHAEL PORTILLO
We are in 1987. The prime minister has just won an election with a reduced majority and is celebrating by handbagging the European Union. As problems at home well up, she diverts attention by striding the world stage. Immediately after polling day, the government promised to listen to people more carefully, but it has lost no time in trundling out a piece of misconceived legislation that will bring it to the brink of catastrophe. The prime minister will not survive to the end of the parliament and neither will the new law. In 1987 Margaret Thatcher occupied Downing Street and her ill-fated bill enacted the poll tax. Today Tony Blair presses on with identity cards. I have seen this movie before and I know how it ends.
The poll tax fiasco began when Scotland updated the valuation of homes under the old rates system.
It caused a problem because the middle classes would have to pay more. A little petty cash could have solved the difficulty. Instead, it spawned an idiotic idea that brought down Britain’s greatest post-war premier. I am not often prescient but that was one disaster I foresaw.
When Michael Forsyth, then a young Scottish Tory MP, told me that England must introduce the poll tax because the government had already decided to impose it on Scotland,
I told him that his argument was illogical and dangerous.
At first many thought we were on to a winning policy. Abolishing the rates was as popular then as deporting failed asylum seekers is now. But soon we faced riots on the streets and, more seriously for Thatcher, panic among our MPs. By then I had assumed ministerial responsibility for the poll tax. Holding office may have rendered me dishonest but it did not make me stupid. I could see that the law was doomed.
Last week Charles Clarke, the home secretary, reintroduced the identity card bill. In the few months since he last brought it to the Commons, it is striking how much closer to doom his scheme has already moved. Then he argued that the cards were needed to fight terrorism. Not now. That reasoning has been ditched. You cannot play the terror card and simultaneously promise the scheme will be voluntary and take a decade to roll out.
His reassuring estimate of what the scheme will cost has been demolished by two independent reports that put the number three times higher at between £10 billion and £19 billion. Blair and Clarke try to discredit those figures but the public would rather believe Pinocchio than any minister of the crown.
What’s more, the bill now faces parliamentary opposition. When it was last debated the Conservatives, with Michael Howard in the ascendant, backed the government. The party that claimed to stand for the bigger citizen and the smaller state made an ass of itself.
Last week, with David Davis at the helm and Howard absent, the Tories tore into the government, demolishing every one of its flimsy arguments. Ministers won the vote in the Commons but lost the argument. Their majority understates the degree of discontent on all sides. Labour backbenchers savaged the bill and its authors. The Lords will maul it further.
The identity card bill is fatally damaged. A wise government would turn around now and head for port. In a matter of weeks the whole debacle could be quietly forgotten.
But third-term prime ministers are not wise. They are too busy with their global agenda to study the detail of what their ministers have devised. A flood of testosterone dulls the messages from their political antennae. Machismo distorts their sense of proportion.
The government now argues that identity cards would help to end fraud and identity theft. But in social security the biggest scam is people pretending to have a disability that they do not have, rather than assuming another name.
Clarke pleaded that the banking sector loses £50m to identity deception. The banks’ problem does not validate spending on identity cards 380 times the sum lost through fraud, just as a small local difficulty over Scottish rates did not justify introducing the poll tax. In truth, the government is establishing a mouth-watering target for fraudsters and terrorists. Anyone who hacks into the national identity register can make a fortune or reduce Britain to chaos.
Clarke said that the Madrid terrorists had been traced because they had produced genuine identity cards when they bought their mobile telephones. I assure him that Al-Qaeda operatives will produce fake ones next time. Meanwhile, I do not want to live in a society where I have to prove my identity to buy a mobile, or a piece of rope, video recorder, torch or anything else that the government fears a terrorist might use.
The death of privacy is a worrying challenge for this new century. Technology enables us to spy on one another. Hackers can intercept our e-mails and tap our telephone calls. They may do it for fun or to do us harm. With the miniaturisation of components, anyone you meet could be filming you and recording what you say. It would be easy for someone to bug your house. It is child’s play to access your bank account and track your movements through your mobile or by the cash withdrawals that you make. It is legal to train a camera on your front door and display your comings and goings on the internet.
So far such problems have largely affected only celebrities and so the issue has not been taken seriously. When the media achieves a scoop by printing the transcripts of the Prince of Wales’s phone calls, nobody, it seems, cares much about the implications of such espionage for our society. Our lives would be intolerable if no remark and no act were private. Think of it, because any one of us could become a victim.
The government ought to be leading the fight to protect British citizens from intrusion. In fact, it does nothing because a law to protect privacy would offend the media (although media intrusion is just a small part of the issue). Compounding its inaction, the government now seeks to maximise its own scrutiny of our lives. People arrested but not charged are fingerprinted. Ministers cheerfully propose to record the movements of our cars so as to make us pay for using the roads.
The government is excited rather than alarmed by what technology can do. It sees utility, not danger, in each opportunity to increase its surveillance. If more of our movements and purchases are logged, it will help the police to fight crime. If more of us have been fingerprinted, it will be easier to nab suspects after a robbery.
But new technology has not altered the question of balance. It has always been open to government to spy on us more closely. However, prudent governments remember that in a common-law country, the citizen is assumed to be free to do whatever the law does not forbid. That thinking underlay the abolition of identity cards in Britain after the second world war. It is presumably why the United States, despite being attacked on September 11, 2001, is not planning to introduce them now.
Crime is a scourge in a free society. But when privacy dies, the free society dies with it.
As the G8 summit approaches, the government is whipping up public demonstrations (a practice usually confined to authoritarian regimes).
It should be careful about giving others ideas. The identity card bill could provide a new opportunity for citizens to march.
As people begin to discover that they cannot receive benefits or open a bank account or borrow a book without buying an expensive card, the political temperature is going to rise. When they realise that it contains 50 pieces of private information about them, the mercury will climb higher.
As they find that some of their personal data are wrong and some are being kept secret from them, tempers may fray. If parliament cannot defeat the bill, maybe it will perish on the streets.
The poll tax is, I believe, a unique example of legislation enacted and repealed by the same government within the same parliament. The identity card bill looks set to suffer the same fate. In the case of the poll tax, the U-turn was made possible only after a change of prime minister. You see why now feels like 1987.