The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Anarchy in the UK?

February 23, 2006

Last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair told the BBC he thought that his government had “won the argument” about its identity card plan. The House of Lords voted overwhelmingly in late January to make any plan voluntary, but the House of Commons voted last week to compel people applying for passports to obtain the new biometric cards.

Despite Blair’s proclamation of victory, it is clear that his government continues to encounter opposition. While the cards are being sold as a means to prevent fraud, illegal immigration, organized crime and terrorism, the House of Commons also voted last week to require a cost accounting before a law to implement the plan in full can be considered.

The initial cost report has been filed. To date, £32 million has been spent, and the program now costs about £63,000 per day. In the future, the plan will cost nearly 600 million pounds per year and each biometric passport will cost £93 (a London School of Economics report estimated the passport cost at £300 each; the government said a stand alone card will cost only £30).

The costs matter. Polling data reveals that as costs increase, public support wanes. 2 to 1 oppose a plan that would cost £6 billion. 8 to 1 oppose a £10 billion plan, though the BBC doesn’t say whether those are total, or annual, costs.

And, of course, costs are not the only concern.

Opponents, like Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael, say that the plan will “radically alter British society.” Even worse:

shadow home secretary David Davis described the scheme as one of “creeping compulsion”.

A few years ago, a website referrred to the Director of the Identity Card Programme as the “enemy of freedom.” More recently, however, the business management press has focused on some of the plan’s technical details.

Reading Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch a few nights ago, I ran across his recollection about an earlier identity card plan (p. 155):

All through 1985, our football had been heading unstoppably for something like this [in Belgium, English football hooligans had caused the deaths of 38 people, mostly fans of the opposing team]. There was the astonishing Millwall riot at Luton, where the police were routed, and things seemed to go further than they ever have done at an English football ground (it was then that Mrs Thatcher conceived her absurd ID card scheme)…

I didn’t understand the reference, so I had to check google. The Guardian had this helpful line, July 3, 2002:

Mrs Thatcher wanted a football supporters’ identity card at the height of the 1980s hooligan terrace culture.

I also found the following note on a fan website for the West Bromwich Albion, “Albion Till We Die.” The author is describing the football fanzine “Fingerpost”:

The fanzine was also heavily involved in fighting Margaret Thatcher’s I.D. card scheme.

There you have it.

In the 1980s, identity cards were proposed by a conservative government in an effort to limit the violence inflicted by English hooligans while traveling around Europe in support of their football teams. Football fans opposed.

In the aughts, identity cards are proposed by a Labor government in an effort to limit the violence and crime inflicted by terrorists and organized criminals traveling into England for nefarious purposes. Many Liberal Democrats and Tories oppose it.

I’m betting Blair will be able to require identity cards, at least for travelers and immigrants.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.