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  1. Long reads
8 October 2001

A tool to fight bigamy, not terrorism

War on Terror: Identity Cards - The ID card is not just illiberal; it is also, as British h

By John Agar

“If you would only face up to branding each one of us on the left arm at the time of vaccination,” wrote one civil servant despairingly to the registrar-general on the eve of the last introduction of British identity cards. Only then might an official number be successfully attached to each individual. We seem happy to carry identification – driving licences or national insurance numbers – based on partial registers, but comprehensive registers of the population have been met with hostility. Compulsory universal identity cards have one great drawback: they don’t stick.

The attack on the United States by Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network has led to calls for identity cards to be issued again in the United Kingdom. Already, proponents have extended the wish-list of consequences from ending terrorism to countering benefit fraud or under-age drinking, while critics raise familiar arguments about the threat to national character or civil liberties. When David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, ruled out the immediate introduction of ID cards, he was not conceding the force of such arguments, but falling back on a historic British compromise.

Britain introduced ID cards twice in the 20th century, during both world wars. Compulsory national registers, containing individuals’ names, addresses and other personal information, were compiled from 1915-19 and 1939-52. These registers were more powerful administrative tools than the ID cards issued against them. Both times, the system collapsed.

Crises and cards go hand in hand. As the First World War intensified, what was previously unthinkable became justifiable. The first national register was to be the tool that would allow young men to be marshalled efficiently into factories and armies. ID cards, an anathema in 1913, were only a by-product. But the register became embroiled in a fierce cabinet debate over whether recruitment should be by conscription or voluntarism. Once the number of conscriptable men had been produced, settling the argument that had rent the cabinet, the political will to continue the register disappeared. The register soon became out of date. Cards were lost, left in coat pockets, dropped behind chairs. A bureaucrat angrily wrote: “I shall strictly charge my secretaries that all reference to any connection with the National Registration Committees is to be kept out of my tombstone. I am . . . ashamed of the whole business, which for futility and ineptitude has been hard to beat – even in this war.”

The second card was better planned. The trick, noted the registrar-general, Sylvanus Percival Vivian, was to give it “parasitic vitality”. The only way people would keep the card was if it was linked to something they needed. Vivian’s suggestion was food, and the national register of the Second World War was intimately tied to rationing. Even then, it was devilishly difficult to make the card stick. Not only were cards accidentally lost, but they were deliberately copied. Forgery and fraud spiralled. Protected by the possession of a fake card, it was easier to lead a double life. ID cards led to an increase in crime, because criminals could now appropriate a powerful new official resource.

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Dismayed by Blunkett’s decision, card enthusiasts have claimed that improved technology is the answer. Current proposals include a “smart card”, with retina scans and automatic fingerprint recognition. But anyone capable of faking a passport or a credit card could easily handle such a system. In fact, the lower-tech the better. One strength of the British ID card of the Second World War was the paucity of information stored on it. When confronted by a policeman, a deserter with a forged or stolen card would have to guess a date of birth, which could then be cross-checked.

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While Whitehall wanted the card merely to assist conscription, planning and rationing, commentators saw many other possible applications. No longer would a gentleman have to wait to claim a suitcase, the bigamist escape detection, or the subversive “alien” remain in the country. But as the past shows, cards could be easily forged, and a national register was a ludicrously expensive way to tackle the couple of hundred cases of bigamy each year. The available evidence also shows that the security services made little use of national register data, regarding their own smaller registers as more effective.

When the young Liberal Clarence Willcock refused to present his ID card to a policeman in 1951, the Lord Chief Justice found in favour of the government. But his ruling was couched in terms that made clear his opposition to that wartime hangover, the ID card. While Whitehall did press to keep the national register going, it was not a big issue. This was because, at least since 1918, the consensus had been that the surveillance advantages of a national register could be achieved through a bureaucratic amalgam of uncontentious partial registers. It was hoped that, by this compromise, surveillance of the population could be achieved without those symbols of the oppressive state, a national register and universal ID cards.

Overlapping partial registers are still with us and, if Blunkett continues to stall, will be for some time. They work unobtrusively and raise few hackles. Indeed, one of them, the NHS central register, was generated by copying the last national register. Your NHS document is a ghost of the ID card.

John Agar’s history of British identity cards will be published in November in Documenting Individual Identity, edited by Jane Caplan and John Torpey (Princeton University Press)