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28 May 2005 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1065-1630842,00.html

ID cards could be a big step for security. That's just why they're wrong

Matthew Parris

PLACE BESIDE each other two pairs of scales. In the right-hand scale of each pair, deposit a one-pound weight. In the left-hand scale of the first pair deposit a 15oz weight. In the left hand scale of the second, a 1oz weight. What do you see? Two identical outcomes. Both balances have tipped, and tipped decisively, to the right. The angles at which they rest are indistinguishable.

But the forces governing each are not. It will be easy to reverse the balance of the first scales: two more ounces will do it. To reverse the second balance will require more.

The science of psephology could reach deeper if it understood better that a “division” in public opinion, between a “yes” camp and a “no” camp, is often only a reflection of a similar division within the breast of each individual respondent. Each of us is a balance: an internal opinion poll. We are sensible of decent arguments for and against most tricky decisions. For some the scales tip one way, for others the other. The weighing-up is often unconscious, but after doing it it the respondent declares himself a “yes” or a “no”. That may sound unequivocal, even to himself, but the truth is that he is a “yes” or “no” on balance. It is the relative weights in that balance which will determine (whatever he may suppose today) how easily his opinion could change tomorrow.

When governing parties try to calculate where the balance of public opinion lies before introducing controversial legislation, they make a grave mistake if they rely on headline numbers alone. The ratio of “yes” to “no” may look decisive, but unless you can weigh the forces that have tipped that balance, you cannot know how easily it might tip the other way.

The Government’s identity cards legislation is a case in point. It is set to be the new Casinos Bill. Launched with broad, shallow support, it will sail into a worsening storm. Enthusiasts will wobble as the details become clearer. Opponents that ministers had never heard of will emerge from the woodwork. People who thought they had no problems with the plan will discover that they always harboured doubts. Early critics will become implacable enemies, early agnostics will turn into critics, early supporters will turn agnostic and early evangelists melt away.

“What — me, guv? Nah, never did agree with it. You must be muddling me with a different cabbie.”

Most of us feel the attractions of an arrangement where all citizens carry a foolproof means of identification. But a similar proportion would assent to the proposition that nurses should be paid more, or that the private motorcar is wrecking the environment. The interesting question, however, is how deeply and how fiercely the opinion is held, and how strongly we feel the weight of the argument the other way. With what tenacity will today’s “yes” be clung to when the costs and risks of legislating for it become clear?

The answer depends on hunch. Mine is that support for compulsory ID cards is wide but weak, while opposition is narrower, but potentially deep and bitter. In vignette within each of us there is an appreciation of the case for compulsory ID cards but also (if I am right) a deep worry which may not have surfaced.

And here I take issue with Mary Ann Sieghart, whose column yesterday (“There’s disaster on the cards”) was spot-on as a prediction how the Government’s case will flounder, but who overlooks the deepest reason why. The most entrenched argument against the proposals — deeply, bitterly, often only half-consciously, sensed — is not that ID cards won’t work, but that they will.

Fear of control, suspicion towards the State, and a jealous guarding of privacy and the right to hide, runs very deep in human nature. It is, however, extremely difficult to express in a manner which sounds rational. People will therefore grasp at other planks for their argument. “ID cards will cost too much”, “the technology will fail”, “villains will always be able to cheat” and “the time is not ripe” will become the banners that we who oppose the measure will bear aloft, but is that really what has drawn us to the march?

Answering for myself I must say no, and I doubt I am so very different from my countrymen. I want the project not to work. Part of me hopes the machinery for implementing it proves beyond the Home Office’s wit. I just don’t want to give government — any government — that much control.

Mary Ann is not wrong. She has identified precisely how the argument will in practice run. Were I David Davis, or the Opposition Chief Whip, I would recommend her column as the best highest common factor around with which to rally the ragbag of people who must organise the resistance. It would be a strategic error for the Conservative Party to declare itself opposed in principle to ID cards, for it need not go nearly so far. Enough to argue that this plan, this time, in these circumstances, today, is ill-starred. Enough to suggest that we leave other countries to pilot these ideas, and learn from their mistakes. Enough to promise to look at it again in a few years’ time. “Steady on”, “not so fast”, “more information please” and “not yet” should be the watchwords of the anti-ID cards campaign, which, like Mary Ann, I think stands a good chance of winning the day.

But I shall not be proud of joining this campaign. Michael Foot once reminded me that any competent debater can tackle the weak arguments in his opponent’s case, but that a great debater confronts its strengths.

The strengths of the ID cards plan are as follows: in the end it surely can be made to work. We may stumble at first, but the information technology to do it is potentially there. Biometric tests may well be made virtually foolproof. Many great leaps in human progress begin in a sea of cost- overruns and technical difficulties, but finally settle down.

So we should admit the possibility that one day every citizen may be put in possession, and for a reasonable cost, of a piece of plastic or paper that uniquely identifies him and that cannot be forged; and that this will enable agents of the State — police officers, social security officers, tax officials, hospital authorities, immigration officials — to access (when they have authority) any or all of the electronic records held on him by various government departments.

We must acknowledge the potential benefits. This really would be a weapon against crime, wouldn’t it? It really would help to combat fraud, tax evasion, illegal immigration, even disease. In short, I accept that compulsory ID cards could one day, and at a reasonable cost, make me safer, more law-abiding and more secure.

And still I oppose them. I oppose them because evasion, deceit, even crime, and the irregular organisation of one’s own affairs, are part of a citizen’s weaponry of last resort against State oppression. They are weapons I may never need, but I need to know they are there. That as a potential victim of fraud, crime and disorder I will — by hampering the Government’s efforts to crack down on these things — pay a price, I freely acknowledge. Government efficiency is not something of which I can truthfully say “the more the better”.

It contributes to my security in the very deepest sense to know that in the last resort there are places I could hide. It contributes to my confidence in the future of liberty to know that no government will have at its disposal every weapon it needs to seek its enemies out.

As a slogan, “Give me inefficiency!” hardly matches the majesty of “Give me liberty!” but thank heaven that the Free French, Nelson Mandela and Alexander Solzhenitsyn faced inefficient states. Yes, ID cards could work. That is why I hate them.