Any minister who proposes identity cards in Britain must have some kind of death wish. He will provoke the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph into rare alliance. He will have to contend with sanctimonious articles from out-of-office politicians, patting themselves on the back for turning down the idea when they were in government. He will find the entire libertarian lobby - which tends to be very unlibertarian about listening to ideas it disagrees with - ranged noisily against him. He will be told that the whole idea is unBritish, that ID cards were invented by evil Continental dictatorships. All this was too much for Michael Howard when he occupied the Home Office. Even David Blunkett, who prides himself on a robust attitude to civil liberties, seems daunted by the prospect. He is not, he insists, proposing identity cards, merely "entitlement cards". He will not, he tells people, "go to the wall" on the issue. He does not, he continues, want to make it into a law-enforcement or security issue. Downing Street, meantime, lets it be known that it will stay out of the debate, and the Treasury puts it about that it is worried about the cost - a useful cop-out on any political issue that might turn nasty.
All this is understandable because new Labour in general and Mr Blunkett in particular have already made fools of themselves over the "snoopers' charter", which would have given about a dozen government agencies powers to gather detailed data about individuals, including their internet rovings. This government has not been fastidious about liberty; few governments are. Politicians in power always favour surveillance because it is in their nature to fear losing control; and they know perfectly well that most voters will not bother about new laws or regulations until they fall foul of them.
But on ID cards (as we should continue to call them), Mr Blunkett can afford to be braver. In the modern world, identity is our most precious possession. All too often, the poor lack it, a dilemma of which the middle classes, with driving licences, passports, National Trust passes, professional membership credentials and a stack of credit cards, have no conception. It is lack of identity documents that prevents the poor from opening bank accounts, claiming benefit, and escaping police attention. The prospect of showing identity to the police makes liberal middle-class hackles rise; but poorer people are always being asked to prove their identity, and are often then hassled because they cannot do so.
The simple reality of life is that middle-class people hardly ever leave their homes without several means of proving who they are, and will happily pay handsome premiums for fancy plastic to demonstrate wealth, power or exclusivity. Their objection is to carrying some common-or-garden, bog- standard card, issued by the state, and therefore also held by their social inferiors. Many would no doubt also object if Mr Blunkett's card was able to show if they were paying their taxes in full and if they were truly entitled to claim the public benefits of which they freely make use. But it is hard to see why anybody should object to a single card that would put an end to the need for people to fill out a new set of forms every time they come into contact with a public body. Far from adding to the amount of information the government can hold on us, an ID card could reduce it, because it would leave the petty bureaucrat with little excuse to demand further, unnecessary details.
Mr Blunkett's consultation paper, issued on 3 July, makes it clear that one of the main purposes of an ID card would be to combat illegal immigration. This naturally raises the suspicions of his critics. But one should not confuse opposition to this government's immigration policies (which are economically short-sighted as well as downright illiberal) with opposition to checking illegality. Again, it is poor people who lose - and unscrupulous employers who gain - from illegal immigrants who take work at rates below the minimum wage. On this, as on much else connected with civil liberties, the government's critics from the left are profoundly confused. They cannot, on the one hand, argue for a regulating, beneficent state - delivering universal public services and demanding minimum standards from private firms - while denying that state the information and power to carry out such duties.
Mr Blunkett's consultation paper makes it clear that the government is not proposing that it would be a criminal offence for people to go out without their cards - it would be no more than an inconvenience, just as it is now when people forget their credit cards. The proposal deserves a hearing, not just raspberries from the right and the left.
The great ape menace
And another urgent subject for Mr Blunkett's in-tray: the chimpanzee menace. As our This England column reports, a chimp has been accused of the theft of a mobile phone. Worse, Frodo, a chimpanzee who features in films made by the chimp expert Dr Jane Goodall, is accused of murdering a child, whose mother unwisely went searching for firewood with him in the Tanzanian national park where Frodo lives. Chimpanzees, like many wild animals, can indeed be lethal; one had thought this well known. But the right-wing press are foaming at the mouth. The Daily Mail, after putting the boot into asylum-seekers, benefit claimants, homeless beggars, young single mothers and other unfortunates, has an exciting new victim. Responding to those who want to give apes legal rights, it demands that errant chimps be put on trial. Given new Labour's record, we can expect an action plan very shortly.