Land of freedom

Identity cards - Jonathan Glancey on why government policy is an insult to our national heritage

''Know my name is lost," Edgar, a Saxon noble, tells the ranks of the army led by the Duke of Albany as he swaps his assumed role of Poor Tom, a Bedlam beggar, for that of a future king of England. And no ordinary king, but one, Shakespeare tells us, whose friends "will taste the wages of his virtue". A king who might even lead his country to greatness, its people from the shadow of tyranny and arbitrary rule.

In a contemporary rewrite of King Lear, Albany's aides, Lords Blunkett, Clarke and Howard of the Night, would demand to know Edgar's identity, and would threaten him with fines and imprisonment should he be unable to prove it. Surely Edgar must have an identity medallion? What if he proved to be some manifold traitor who might yet sell the fortunes of these sceptr'd isles to France? Or what if he really were Poor Tom of Bedlam after all, and so possibly either an asylum-seeker or terrorist, or both? Worse still, what if he were some woolly-minded liberal scum or socialist who believed in old-fashioned fair play and common decency?

Is all this nonsense? Perhaps. But no more so than the government's decision to impose identity cards on us, and the opposition's decision to go along with a policy that, if applied to King Lear, might well have had Edgar clapped in irons and Edmund crowned king. Edmund's identity, after all, was certain; criminally, in today's terms, Edgar's was not. In any case, had he let the court know he had changed his address when he went gallivanting across the heath with Lear? And had he given a false address when he claimed to be Tom of Bedlam?

The example of Shakespeare's King Lear suggests that identity cards go against our national heritage and culture. Such an illiberal measure could not be supported by any half-decent British politician, and certainly not one who had fought the identity-card-loving dictators of half a century ago. When Britain was directly under threat at the outbreak of the Second World War, there was a country worth fighting for: a country that had, however clumsily, and often despite illiberal politicians, bred, nurtured and exported notions of liberty and democracy. That Britain - a very old Britain stretching back to the days of Lear and Edgar - would have given short shrift to ID cards.

Our notion of freedom, from the fight led by Hereward the Wake against the draconian Normans, was always against codification, against being listed, numbered, tagged and being told what to do by those with power over us but without our respect or true consent. Significantly, it was not a Briton but William the Conqueror who instigated the Domesday Book, a device by which he meant to keep a beady eye on each and every parish in the country. If this Frenchified Viking invader could have introduced identity cards, he surely would have.

This, though, was contrary to a spirit that can still be seen captured in the very fabric of our country. Just look at the ancient stones of our parish churches, one of the greatest collective works of art executed anywhere in the world. These magical, free-spirited buildings were created by largely unidentified craftsmen belonging to travelling bands of masons who came from as far away as Rome or the eastern borders of what we now know as Germany. None had identity cards. Each was free, as were soldiers of fortune or ladies of luck, to follow their star, to make his fortune elsewhere. Each, like an 18th- century London harlot or gallant on the make, could travel, work and change addresses and identities across Europe at will and without charge or threat of arrest.

Much-loved plays, novels and operas of the 18th century are much to do with the exchange and borrowing of identities. Read any novel by Tobias Smollett or Henry Fielding. And read any essay by that great Anglo-Irish divine, Jonathan Swift. Read his epitaph, too, translated from Latin by Yeats: "Swift has sailed into his rest; savage indignation there cannot lacerate his breast. Imitate him if you dare . . . he served human liberty." There will be no such epitaphs on the graves of new Labour or Tory politicians. Read William Blake, who knew what it was like to be arrested on trumped-up charges of sedition by the agents of a government (William Pitt's) every bit as fearful, weasel-worded and intolerant as ours is today:

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England's green and pleasant land.

Blake's was a song of freedom. Let it never again be sung at a Labour Party meeting.

The "woolly-minded" call to liberty of Hereward, Swift, Blake and so many others has been repeated by succeeding generations, right down to the age of mass entertainment. In the late 1960s television series The Prisoner, conceived by and starring Patrick McGoohan, an intelligence officer who resigns and is then forcibly interned without trial fights for his true identity against the one which the powers that be are determined to press upon him in their attempt to break his spirit. And what a spirit it is: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, briefed, debriefed or numbered," McGoohan's character cries. "My life is my own. I am a free man."

To give in to ID cards is to mock British liberty, to ground 1940 Spitfires, to undermine the stones of our medieval churches, to spurn hospitality to those who would settle and work in Britain, contributing to our culture while establishing new identities. No politician willing to employ this perverted use of science, this shameful Emergency Powers Act of our day, will ever have the support of anyone with the slightest respect for British culture or history. If this folly goes ahead, the name "Britain" and its association with individual freedom will be as lost as Edgar's.