National identity cards are dead, but history shows it's an idea that keeps getting resurrected, says David Cannadine in his Point of View column.
Just over a week ago, the Identity Documents Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons, and it should become law by the end of the summer. Its aim, which is consistent with the pledges previously made by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, is to repeal the Identity Cards Act which the Labour government passed in 2006.
Anti-ID card protesters got their wish
The purpose of this earlier legislation had been essentially two-fold: to make provision for a national identity card scheme, which would be implemented in stages by 2012, and to establish a database known as the National Identity Register, which would hold unprecedented quantities of information about all of us. Much concern was expressed at the time by human rights lawyers, security professionals and IT experts, and one of the reasons given by the coalition for repealing the 2006 Act is that it will help "reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion".
In addition, the new government has claimed that the scrapping of the scheme will save about £86 million during the next four years.
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Identity card schemes have been introduced into this country twice before, only to be scrapped soon after amidst widespread public rejoicing and relief. They were initially brought in during World War I, as a way of increasing domestic security at a time of unprecedented national emergency; but they were generally regarded as a threat to civil liberties rather than a safeguard, and abandoned when the war ended.
They were introduced again in 1939, for essentially the same reason, and were met with an equally unenthusiastic public response. But despite these familiar objections, the Labour government of Clement Attlee decided to continue the scheme, in the face of the Cold War and the perceived Soviet threat, so it was not until 1952 that identity cards were abolished a second time. This was partly because the Conservative government of Winston Churchill was determined to "set the people free". But then, as now, it was also on account of the cost.
Many of the arguments that have recently been deployed against identity cards were used in earlier times against passports, which have often been seen, and have sometimes been intended, as identity cards under another name.
Passports have gone hi-tech...
The first reference to something anticipating the modern-day passport is in the Old Testament, in which Nehemiah bore a letter from his master, the King of Persia, addressed "to governors of the province beyond the river", asking them to afford the bearer safe passage.
This kind of document is also mentioned in Shakespeare's Henry V, where the king, on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, declares to his followers: "He that hath no stomach for this fight, let him depart; his passport shall be made."
But neither of these papers linked individual identity with national identity as modern passports do. They were essentially letters of safe conduct, which King Henry may well have pioneered in England. Such documents were customarily written in Latin and in English, but in 1772, the government adopted the international language of diplomacy, namely French, and this remained the practice even when the British were fighting Napoleon.
When in France...
The history of the modern passport effectively begins during the decades following the defeat of France in 1815.
... and even pets have them
For many of the Continental monarchies that were restored following the downfall of Napoleon, passports were primarily a means of domestic surveillance, which enabled the authorities to keep track of people who might be a threat to the established order. For most Britons, by contrast, the possession of a passport was a sign that they were free to leave their native land to travel anywhere in the world; and it was also evidence that they were people of standing, for British passports could only be obtained if you knew the Foreign Secretary personally, or if you knew someone else who did.
But it did not have to be a British passport: if, for example, you wanted to travel to France, it made better sense to get a French passport from the French embassy in London, and this was something it was quite easy to do.
At this stage, then, there was no necessary link which a passport established between personal identity and national identity, and as a result, the system could be easily abused. This happened most famously in 1858, when an Italian revolutionary named Count Felice Orsini travelled to Paris on a British passport in the name of one Thomas Allsop, and tried to assassinate the Emperor Napoleon III.
Would-be assassin Count Felice Orsini
The attempt was unsuccessful, and Orsini was subsequently caught, tried and hanged; but the story didn't end there. There was a huge diplomatic row between Britain and France, as a result of which the British government, led by Lord Palmerston, was brought down by a hostile vote in parliament. More lastingly, the whole system of granting passports was tightened up, so as to establish a much closer connection between the individual and the nation. In future, British passports would only be given to British nationals, and they were issued in English as well as in French.
But this didn't result in the widespread proliferation of passports, for during the closing decades of the 19th Century, and in the years before 1914, they virtually went out of use, not only in Britain, but also in much of Europe.
As railways spread over the continent, and as more people than ever travelled across national boundaries, it seemed impossible to cope with the increased demands of issuing and checking passports. The result was that in 1861, only three years after the row with Britain on this very subject, France abolished passports, and many other nations soon followed suit. By the early 1900s, the only two major European powers which insisted on passports for their own nationals travelling overseas, and for visitors from abroad, were Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Both were then regarded as deeply reactionary regimes, more Asiatic than European, and the fact that they also insisted on passports was no coincidence.
Spies like us
WWI changed all that, as passports became compulsory virtually everywhere, as a means whereby the belligerent powers sought to keep out foreign spies and also to prevent the emigration of their own citizens with valuable skills. The Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, passed in 1914, established the first recognisably modern British passport as a single page, folded into eight, with a cardboard cover, and a photograph of the bearer.
Churchill's wartime passport
In 1920, under the auspices of the newly-established League of Nations, the format of the passport was internationally standardised, and the British version was expanded into the 32-page document known as Old Blue. The matter was discussed again by the League in 1926, when the British passport was acclaimed as "perfection itself": the personal details were handwritten, the bearer's name and the passport number appeared on the front cover, and it was this design which endured, essentially unaltered, until 1988.
Yet during the early decades of its existence, the old blue British passport was resented rather than esteemed.
Indeed, it was none other than Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government, who once opined that his ambition was to be able to travel from Victoria Station, to any destination in the world, without any passport whatever.
In 1949, which was during Bevin's tenure of office, this view was echoed in a classic Ealing Comedy, entitled Passport to Pimlico, starring Stanley Holloway and Margaret Rutherford. The film is a protest against excessive government interference in the lives of ordinary people, as Pimlico successfully asserts its claim to be part of the ancient Duchy of Burgundy, declares itself independent of Britain, abolishes rationing and other bureaucratic restrictions, and establishes its own frontiers and passport checkpoints.
The Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico
By then, the chances of abolishing the British passport had disappeared, and subsequent changes in its format have been driven by growing concerns about security, and also by the trend towards increased European integration.
Watermarked paper was introduced in 1972, laminating over the photograph in 1975, and overprinting in 1981. Seven years later, the old blue British passports were replaced by smaller machine-readable versions, which also feature the words European Community on the cover, and which print the bearer's personal information at the back rather than the front, where it had previously been.
Many Britons mourned the passing of what they regarded as their traditional passport, although in truth it hadn't existed for all that long. When, I wonder, and for what duration will identity cards be re-introduced yet again?
Below is a selection of your comments.
The "Old Blue" might not have been that old but travelling through Europe and into Eastern Europe in the late eighties with an "Old Blue" you saw how much respect it claimed. German, Dutch and (particularly) American passports were thoroughly scrutinised - a flash of the lovely hard-cover of the British passport was almost always sufficient. "Ah, British - OK!"
Timothy Bolton, Selfkant, Germany
The article completely forgot the one-year British Visitors passport. Printed on pink card and included travel to West Germany. Anyone from the Post Office could get one on the spot for around a tenner. I still have mine in a drawer!
John Hyde, London
I believe A.J.P. Taylor made a point of not using a passport when entering or leaving Britain, making the point that the only legal necessity was to demonstrate identity, and that a passport was not essential to this purpose.
Mike Ellwood, Abingdon, GB
ID cards keep cropping up because long term they are a no-brainer, other than for the paranoia brigade who keeps delaying them. We waste money on a number of ID methods and merging those will save effort, redundancy and cost as well as improve ID in so many areas from passports to alcohol age proof and from credit to illicit immigration.
Paul J. Weighell, Purley, UK
You correctly identify spying as the real reason for identity cards. Politicians are not willing to admit this was their reason, so cost is the friendly compromise that allow supporters to back down. As with anything in politics, the stated reason is not the real one...
James, Ohio, USA
I carry seven cards in my purse: a payment card, three store cards, a library card, a bus pass, and a gym membership card. At home I keep a driving licence and a passport. It is ridiculous. Why can't I have just one card that tells anyone who wants to know who I am?
Joan Cole, Haverhill, Suffolk, England
I would like to take the opportunity to debunk that cry of the ID card apologist, "If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear." If I've got nothing to hide, why the heck should we need a card to prove it? They would have been an sinister invasion of my privacy and tantamount to having to have a "licence" for my continued citizenship. I am happy that they have been scrapped.
Neil Moister, Crombie, Fife
Every other western European country has an ID card system. I simply don't understand what it is that makes Britain so much different that it can't work here.
Passports are about travelling out of this country whereas identity cards were all about restricting movement within this country. I hope this government continues to remember that this is my country just as much as it is theirs....