‘The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts’.
– Edmund Burke.
Edmund Burke is regarded as the founder of modern Conservatism, the defender of tradition, freedom, and gradual change against revolutionary innovation based solely on abstract principle. He was also the 18th century MP, who successfully campaigned for the Canadian provinces to be given self-government on the grounds that, as they paid their taxes, so they had earned their right to government. His defence of tradition came from his observation of the horror of the French Revolution and his ideas regarding their political and social causes, as reflected in his great work, Reflections on the Revolution in France. While his Conservatism may justly be attacked by those on the Left, the statement on the gradual, incremental danger to liberty is still very much true, and should be taken seriously by citizens on both the Left and Right sides of the political spectrum. This should not be a party political issue.
In my last post, I reblogged Mike’s article commenting on recent legislation attempting to cut down on illegal immigration. This essentially devolved the responsibility for checking on the status of immigrants to private individuals and organisations, such as banks and landlords. As with much of what the government does, or claims to do, it essentially consists of the state putting its duties and responsibilities into the private sphere. Among the groups protesting at the proposed new legislation were the BMA, immgrants’ rights groups and the Residential Landlords’ Association. The last were particularly concerned about the possible introduction of identification documents, modelled on the 404 European papers, in order to combat illegal immigration. Such fears are neither new nor unfounded. I remember in the early 1980s Mrs Thatcher’s administration considered introduction ID cards. The plan was dropped as civil liberties groups were afraid that this would create a surveillance society similar to that of Nazi Germany or the Communist states. The schemes were mooted again in the 1990s first by John Major’s administration, and then by Blair’s Labour party, following pressure from the European Union, which apparently considers such documents a great idea. The Conservative papers then, rightly but hypocritically, ran articles attacking the scheme.
There are now a couple of books discussing and criticising the massive expansion of state surveillance in modern Britain and our gradual descent into just such a totalitarian surveillance state portrayed in Moore’s V for Vendetta. One of these is Big Brother: Britain’s Web of Surveillance and the New Technological Order, by Simon Davies, published by Pan in 1996. Davies was the founder of Privacy International, a body set up in 1990 to defend individual liberties from encroachment by the state and private corporations. He was the Visiting Law Fellow at the University of Essex and Chicago’s John Marshall Law School. Davies was suspicious of INSPASS – the Immigration and Naturalisation Service Passenger Accelerated Service System, an automatic system for checking and verifying immigration status using palm-prints and smart cards. It was part of the Blue Lane information exchange system in which information on passengers was transmitted to different countries ahead of the journey. The countries using the system were the US, Canada, Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bermuda, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, San Marino, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Davies considered the scheme a danger to liberty through the state’s increasing use of technology to monitor and control the population.
At the time Davies was writing, 90 countries used ID cards including Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. They also included such sterling examples of democracy as Thailand and Singapore. In the latter, the ID card was used as an internal passport and was necessary for every transaction. The Singaporean government under Lee Kwan Yew has regularly harassed and imprisoned political opponents. The longest serving prisoner of conscience isn’t in one of the Arab despotisms or absolute monarchies, nor in Putin’s Russia. They’re in Singapore. A few years ago the country opened its first free speech corner, modelled on Hyde Park’s own Speaker’s Corner. You were free to use it, provided you gave due notice about what you were planning to talk about to the police first for their approval. There weren’t many takers. As for Thailand, each citizen was issued a plastic identity card. The chip in each contained their thumbprint and photograph, as well as details of their ancestry, education, occupation, nationality, religion, and police records and tax details. It also contains their Population Number, which gives access to all their documents, whether public or private. It was the world’s second largest relational database, exceeded in size only by that of the Mormon Church at their headquarters in Salt Lake City. Thailand also has a ‘village information system’, which collates and monitors information at the village level. This is also linked to information on the person’s electoral preferences, public opinion data and information on candidates in local elections. The Bangkok post warned that the system would strengthen the interior ministry and the police. If you needed to be reminded, Thailand has regularly appeared in the pages of the ‘Letter from…’ column in Private Eye as it is a barely disguised military dictatorship.
In 1981 France’s President Mitterand declared that ‘the creation of computerised identity cards contains are real danger for the liberty of individuals’. This did not stop France and the Netherlands passing legislation requiring foreigners to carry identity cards. The European umbrella police organisation, Europol, also wanted all the nations in Europe to force their citizens to carry identity cards. At the global level, the International Monetary Fund routinely included the introduction of ID cards into the criteria of economic, social and political performance for nations in the developing world.
Davies’ own organisation, Privacy International, founded in 1990, reported than in their survey of 50 countries using ID cards, the police in virtually all of them abused the system. The abuses uncovered by the organisation included detention after failure to produce the card, and the beating of juveniles and members of minorities, as well as massive discrimination based on the information the card contained.
In Australia, the financial sector voiced similar concerns about the scheme to those expressed recently by the landlords and immigrants’ rights and welfare organisations. Under the Australian scheme, employees in the financial sector were required by law to report suspicious information or abuse of ID cards to the government. The penalty for neglecting or refusing to do so was gaol. The former chairman of the Pacific nation’s largest bank, Westpar, Sir Noel Foley, attacked the scheme. It was ‘a serious threat to the privacy, liberty and safety of every citizen’. The Australian Financial Review stated in an editorial on the cards that ‘It is simply obscene to use revenue arguments (‘We can make more money out of the Australia Card’) as support for authoritarian impositions rather than take the road of broadening national freedoms’. Dr Bruce Shepherd, the president of the Australian Medical Association stated of the scheme that ‘It’s going to turn Australian against Australian. But given the horrific impact the card will have on Australia, its defeat would almost be worth fighting a civil war for’. To show how bitterly the country that produced folk heroes like Ned Kelly thought of this scheme, cartoons appeared in the Ozzie papers showing the country’s president, Bob Hawke, in Nazi uniform.
For those without ID cards, the penalties were harsh. They could not be legally employed, or, if in work, paid. Farmers, who didn’t have them, could not collect payments from marketing boards. If you didn’t have a card, you also couldn’t access your bank account, cash in any investments, give or receive money from a solicitor, or receive money from unity, property or cash management trusts. You also couldn’t rent or buy a home, receive unemployment benefit, or the benefits for widows, supporting parents, or for old age, sickness and invalidity. There was a A$5,000 fine for deliberate destruction of the card, a A$500 fine if you lost the card but didn’t report it. The penalty for failing to attend a compulsory conference at the ID agency was A$1,000 or six months gaol. The penalty for refusing to produce it to the Inland Revenue when they demanded was A$20,000. About 5 per cent of the cards were estimated to be lost, stolen or deliberately destroyed each year.
The ID Card was too much for the great Australian public to stomach, and the scheme eventually had to be scrapped. It’s a pity that we Poms haven’t learned from our Ozzie cousins and that such ID schemes are still being seriously contemplated over here. It is definitely worth not only whingeing about, but protesting very loudly and strongly indeed.
In Part 2 of this article, I will describe precisely what the scheme does not and cannot do, despite all the inflated claims made by its proponents.