Are ID cards really illiberal?

Before beginning, I have to emphasise my lack of experience in matters of ID cards, and government surveillance, my only qualification being a healthy interest in civil liberties.

I am going to start this post with perhaps a controversial statement from a liberal – the furore over ID cards confused me. Again, I have to admit I didn’t follow it closely enough to pick up all the arguments against it, except the biggest argument being that it was unnecessary. A brief glance at Wikipedia confirms that proposals for ID cards in the UK predate a lot of the terrorism fears stoked by 9/11. That fact backs up a thought I’ve had since living in Switzerland for 3 years – that ID cards and local registration for a national register are necessary in today’s mobile world. ID cards should not increase the very real risk of increased surveillance powers and privacy intrusion.

I don’t think that keeping track of where people live should be a controversial idea for liberals, and it would certainly help with identifying employers illegally employing foreign nationals and processing asylum applications. Maybe Yarls Wood could be closed?! Or at least only used as a genuinely temporary measure as the status of people was preliminary analysed. And, I hate to say it, it would make a lot of sense to those who genuinely want to limit immigrant numbers, as illegal immigrants could be genuinely identified. Although I don’t think immigrant numbers should be arbitrarily defined, I do think that some foreign nationals should be deported, particularly if they are convicted of crimes, and as a realist I realise that the majority of people probably want tighter restrictions than me. If this is happening, I believe that a system of tracking individuals in the country is clearly advantageous.

According to the 2011 census, only 9.5 million people stated they didn’t have a passport, versus 42.5 million who said they had UK passports. Assuming all those without passports are UK citizens, it shows that clearly only a minority (<20%) of UK citizens would be affected by ID cards.

So, I think that ID cards and a national system of tracking residence makes sense. So what? Well, I also think that the Conservatives (And Labour before them when John Major first proposed ID cards) have unfairly framed the argument wrongly. They have also been supported, unhelpfully in my opinion, by the pressure group “Liberty”:

Interestingly, Liberty include probably the most often cited argument at the bottom of their list:

Intrusive and unsafe

Large amounts of information (including former addresses and immigration status) would have been held about individuals on the NIR, with the likelihood of more being held in the future.

This information would have been shared with many agencies within the government and also sub-contractors with scope for extension into the private sector.

The government’s record of losing sensitive information raised doubts about its ability to manage this much new information securely. In 2007, for example, Her Majesty’s Revenues & Customs mislaid millions of people’s personal financial details.

This is enormously vague, and, in the case of most UK citizens certainly, exactly what is currently the case. Government has too much data on us already, but an ID card system would not increase this, except, probably, for people who they do need more information on.

The real enemy to civil liberties is a difficult one – too much surveillance from a government terrified of terrorism. Whether the governments fear is real or masking even more sinister motives is irrelevant, too much surveillance leaves society open to state abuse, and we need to reduce that before 1984 arrives, just ask Julian Huppert. We need a national register aside from the NHS, which may include ID cards for those that don’t hold passports, but we also need to curb government surveillance into our private lives.

Liberal or a socialist?

I’m a liberal democrat, but as much as I don’t think that politics is that simple, I have to admit that I come from the left wing of the liberal democrat spectrum. I could be terms a social liberal, but I’m not sure how helpful that is.

I have been considering this position because of two recent events, firstly, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn who, despite be labelled as hard-left, I can’t help but agree with on a lot of his core issues, and for whom my solidarity makes me realise quite how out of sync my views appear to be with the left-wing establishment (i.e. the Guardian). The second is the Lord Sewel sex scandal where liberal position feels hyper-liberal to me. Spying on people is wrong, but journalists stretch the laws to the limit for stories, particularly public-interest stories, and if they knew that Lord Sewel had a penchant for hired sex, fraud and racist/sexist banter they made a good call.

When it comes to prostitution, I consider myself liberal – I realise that the status quo is unacceptable, and that keeping it an illegal activity is wrong. I think it is wrong to make the prostitutes the criminals and the clients not, especially when the power balance is typically tilted towards the clients. With the Lord Sewel case in mind, prostitution is still illegal in the UK whether I want it to be or not (I don’t want it to be), but another issue on the sexual side is the adultery. Now this is a contentious issue, and calls into question the notion of marriage. This is also a personal issue which we, the public, really have no right to judge him on unless his wife and children feel betrayed enough by him to want the public to know.

In reality, my liberal sensibilities make Lord Sewel’s use of prostitutes less of a real issue than I would personally have from a moral perspective. It is controversial in some liberal circles to give a moral opinion alongside the more liberal perspective, but I do have a moral compass which I happily realise not everyone agrees with – and in some ways I am happy that we all have different moral compasses. For this reason, I really don’t have a problem with Lord Sewel’s use of prostitutes. I do, however have a problem with the legal aspect of him using prostitutes (partly), and more pertinently, his comments that his allowance was for funding that sort of lifestyle. That is fraud in my book, and a much more serious crime than it currently is recognised as by the courts. For that reason, and that reason alone, he should no longer be a Lord. I realise that this £200 allowance is complicated, and whether he actually technically committed fraud is debatable, but being a Lord is a special privilege – this is why the whole standards thing that he was in charge of had been set up, and given that they are unelected, that £200 should be thought of as an expense-covering allowance, rather than a salary.

My narcissistic tendencies (I’m a pretty extreme narcissist by the Sunday Times’ rating), combined with a recent reading of War and Peace (it has been more a “period of my life” than a book), lead me to have a fairly cynical view of the supposed merits of leaders over the unwashed, and the amount in which they deserve special treatment. For the same reason that I seriously think that CEOs barely deserve more than their lowest-paid employees, and the same reason that I am essentially a socialist, I feel strongly that Lords require much higher scrutiny and, as they currently are, do not deserve £200 a day. A much smaller elected chamber with professional politicians is needed, and yes I did say professional politicians, because I think politicians should be paid, but I also think they should work in other jobs, ideally coming from a wide variety of backgrounds. I hope that public attitudes are moving that way too, and the era of wet-around-the-ears spads becoming MPs will be drawing to a close.

I started this post by talking about my liberal tendancies; I am a liberal, but a modern liberal in the sense that the UK mainstream has become tolerant or even accepting of many things beyond the majorities’ personal moral compass (or at least beyond their public morality). I am not a libertarian (I used to think I was) or a classic liberal, and definitely incline more to the left away from typical conservatives (but I must admit a certain degree of sympathy for some “one-nation conservatism”), but like to keep an open mind from issue to issue.

One thing that does worry me, however, is how much I agree with Jeremy Corbyn on a lot of his apparently “hard-left, unelectable” policies. They are not hard-left, nor unelectable, and I hope that Tim Farron, who certainly appears to share plenty of them, will not run away from Corbyn, but seek to build a credible opposition to the Conservatives together, not agreeing on everything, or disagreeing with the government on everything, but standing firm on issues that they care about and know are right, even if they are unpopular or appear too non-mainstream now.