net.wars: officially irrelevant. (But we want the ID card, anyway)

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 22 July 2005

Two sets of attacks carried out by coordinated explosions in the London Tube two weeks apart. You know it's time for conspiracy theories.

Wendy M Grossman

There's a nice page-long round-up that lists the usual suspects: Muslims, Jews, Al-Qaeda, Bush, and the war in Iraq (which isn't a group of people who can conspire together, but still).

Of course, the truly paranoid would rather blame security services in search of yet more ammunition to get themselves surveillance powers. I'd class that as silly – security services assigned to protect us are far more likely to be opportunists than causative agents – but that doesn't change the facts: after the 9/11 attacks the first thing that happened was the passage of the PATRIOT Act in the US (a month later) and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act in the UK (three months later).

It was therefore with a sense of considerable wonder and disbelief that ID card opponents heard Home Secretary Charles Clarke tell the BBC's flagship news program, Today the next morning, "I doubt it would have made a difference" when asked whether ID cards would have stopped the attacks.

That clearly doesn't mean there won't be other new police powers, especially if the run of attacks gets longer. Blair has already said he'll back any additional powers the security services want, and there are moves afoot to make it easier to deport people deemed to be terrorist threats. Arguably, though, if the country has to pay the costs of restoring the tube system, to say nothing of the infrastructure for the 2012 Olympics, the ID card has become a luxury it can't afford. Not that such an argument ever stopped a government from doing anything, particularly when the system proposed is such a perfect Civil Service wet dream (a national database! oh, yeah, baby, bring it on!).

In fact, since the election, opposition to ID cards has grown. The latest poll, taken the day after the 7/7 attacks, showed support for ID cards had dropped to 50 percent in the UK as a whole, and only 45 percent in London. That was not long after a report issued by 20 academics from the LSE said that the cost of the proposed system could reach £19 billion rather than the government's more "modest" estimate of £5.8 billion.

Meantime, the government's majority in favour of the ID cards bill had dropped to 31 at the last vote, held on June 28, with the Conservatives, the LibDems, and even Labour backbenchers now opposed. Even some of those in favour may back away if the bill is not significantly altered by the committee, which has been scrutinising it for the last two weeks.

Speaking on July 8, Gus Hosein, a Visiting Fellow in Information Systems at the http://www.lse.ac.uk/ London School of Economics and a Fellow of http://www.privacyinternational.org/ Privacy International, said that seemed unlikely. "The government stacked the committee with very loyal Blairites, and they're saying no to everything, so the bill's not going to change." Back-bench revolt could actually kill the whole thing.

Sadly, Clarke's admission that ID cards would not have prevented the attacks, while deeply satisfying to opponents who've said as much all along, isn't as significant as it should be. This is because in the entire history since World War II, as successive governments have repeatedly considered ID cards (PDF), every time the ID card proposal has surfaced it has been presented as a solution to whatever fear was currently fashionable.

In the 1980s the cards were going to prevent football hooliganism and street crime.

A couple of years ago they were going to prevent terrorism, benefit fraud, illegal asylum seekers, and illegal working, and prove Britons' entitlement to the public services they pay for.

Over the eight months since Clarke replaced that most rabid of ID card supporters, David Blunkett, who was forced to resign the Home Secretariat over fast-tracking a visa for his mistress's nanny and writing a book trashing his Cabinet colleagues, we've heard less and less about their preventing terrorism. With the emotional impact of 9/11 worn off, the justification du jour had already changed from preventing terrorism to stopping identity theft.

"When the London attacks first happened," says Simon Davies, head of Privacy International and a Fellow at the LSE, "we thought, well, we're dead in the water." But, "The more we talk to people who live and work in central London, the clearer it becomes that they see little or no connection between an ID card and the events that they just lived through. That, I think, is the clearest message going to politicians. It's OK supporting an abstract connection between ID cards and terrorism, but when you live through it there are far more important items on the agenda, such as better police resources."

Davies himself would like to see the government enact a program whereby all schools, universities, and employers train their students and staff in civil defence and first aid. "That would have saved lives in the attacks, and it would continue to do so throughout our national life."

Nice, simple, pragmatic, inexpensive, and no one gets any extra power out of it. Nah. The Civil Service hates that. But that's OK, they can emigrate to Australia.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).