In his History of England AJP Taylor marvelled at how free this country was before the First World War. Unlike the Europeans with their strutting Emperors and bossy codes of approved behaviour, ‘a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card.’
For better and for worse, that world was slowly killed in the 20th Century. I think it is fair to say that New Labour hammered the last nail into the coffin this week when it won the crucial votes on the identity card bill.
From 2008, the state will be in your face – literally in your face. If you want a new passport, you will have to go one of 70 centres and a technician will point a machine at your eyes to scan your irises. All your fingerprints will be taken and, just to be sure, your picture too.
The arguments for and against the cards have been banged out so often it is pointless to rerun them. What fewer people have discussed is the effect of ID cards on the feel of the country. Until now, the great difference between Britain and Europe was that if you were not committing a crime or giving the police reasonable grounds for suspicion, you were free to do whatever you wanted. The police couldn’t order you to produce your papers on a whim.
I don’t want to go into some self-congratulatory eulogy about how zany and eccentric the British are as a result. Nevertheless, it is as foolish to ignore national characteristics as to overplay them, and the traditions New Labour are killing helped create English individualism.
The Government treats laments about lost liberty as silly nostalgia. Virtually every pundit agrees that Gordon Brown must be as tough as Tony Blair if he wants to be a success as Prime Minister. The record shows that centre-Left politicians only win elections when they takes a hard line on crime and national security — and if the Tories oppose them that’s all the better for Labour. Nothing lasts forever in politics, however, and I sense a change of mood. Something snapped when the police allowed the supporters of suicide bombers to parade through London while abusing and threatening to arrest the passers-by who protested. Everywhere I got I meet people who are fed up with being told what they can and cannot say, read or do.
David Cameron’s decision to reverse Tory policy and oppose ID cards vigorously may be a sign that he’s not just a pretty PR man, but a leader in tune with the spirit of the times.
Turning up their noses
IT WAS GOOD to see Bod Geldoff coming out so strongly against cocaine. On the rare occasions I’ve been to fashionable clubs, I’ve always been astonished by the hypocrisy of London’s media elite. Their drug of choice fund gangsters who terrorise Latin America. In Colombia alone, a civil war that is mainly about control of the cocaine trade has produced 400,000 refugees.
Yet none of the suffering bothers the allegedly ethical consumers at the end of the smugglers’ routes. They take care to choose GM free and organic food for their dinners. Then they complement the environmentally friendly meal with a sip of fair trade Colombian coffee and a sniff of foul-trade Colombian cocaine.
Assault on Bus 13
TRAVELLING on Ken Livingstone’s bendy buses is a perpetual adventure. Since the Great Socialist sacked the conductors, it is mayhem most of the time. Yobbos charge on without paying most days, frightening attractive young women and the old and the nervous of both sexes and all ages.
The other day I saw Livingstone’s response when a posse of ticket inspectors blocked the doors and swarmed inside. So fearful were they that their demands for tickets would provoke violence, they had Met officers backing them up. It was like being hit by a SWAT team.
It may cost a little more money, but wouldn’t it be better if Livingstone put an official on each bus who might collect fares, for instance, and reassure commuters that they could travel in safety? He could call this novel figure ‘a conductor’.
IN A HELPFUL attempt to reassure the public that they won’t be stranded when the new PIN system comes in, the banks are offering top tips on how to remember your number. Write it down 10 or 20 times, suggests the chip and pin website, then ‘shred the paper before putting it in the bin’ as Jack Bauer would.
If that doesn’t do the trick, ‘go into a room on your own and say your PIN aloud several times,’ having first checked that no one is listening presumably.
One or other is bound to work, claim the banks. Our research shows that a mere 2.4 per cent of men and 3.5 per cent of women say that they have an ‘appalling memory.’ I don’t know how they can be so confident. Surely people with a genuinely ‘appalling memory’ can’t remember if they have an appalling memory.