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Britain's non-identity crisis

About the author
After five years on the editorial board of NRC Handelsblad, a daily newspaper in the Netherlands, as deputy editor for news, Hans Steketee is once again a staff writer for his paper.

I love my passport. It is in fact a letter by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands asking “all authorities of friendly powers to allow the bearer of the present passport to pass freely without let or hindrance”. Her request usually works. It enables me to pass freely through any (air)port. I can also use it, say, for obtaining a social security number, since it is assumed that my passport contains my real name, true likeness, date of birth, and signature.

These characteristics describe a unique physical object that I (and the state) think of as “me”. My passport makes it easy to deal with bureaucracy. But I have never thought of my passport as “proof” of my identity.

How can a document “prove” my identity if the only thing that really equates with “me” is me? And what does “me” mean? I may think that I know who I am now, but I have changed and will change over time. If I lose my memory, all my physical data will still be correct, but will I still be me?

I hadn’t thought about these things before the British government decided to introduce identity cards. These biometric ID cards will contain much more information about the bearer – including a home address, digitised fingerprints and an iris scan. The possibilities are endless: from medical information such as your blood-type to the points on your supermarket loyalty card.

In short, ID cards will mean more numbers. Taken together, these numbers will describe a body that will in all probability have no equivalent anywhere else on the planet. The state, or rather the present government, finds this useful: it wants to have a unique record of all its citizens that can be checked not only at border crossings but anywhere and at any time.

Six years ago, when I first arrived in Britain as a foreign correspondent, there was much talk about a “national identity crisis”. It was widely assumed that the British no longer knew who they were, since immigrants, the European Union, devolution and economic globalisation were diluting “Britishness”.

This, some argued, was reinforced by the negative identity Britain had cultivated over the centuries. Britain was not part of the continent, it was not a Catholic country, it had had no bloody revolutions and it was one of the only European nations not occupied by the Nazis. But as these outside factors largely disappeared or became less relevant, the argument went, Britishness had become less distinct and Britons therefore had become even less sure of who they were.

I don’t know if my British friends have to take Prozac to tackle their identity crisis, but I doubt it. Britain is adapting to globalisation with relative ease. And whatever Britishness meant in the past, it now means something else, even if we don’t quite know yet what precisely.

On these issues David Blunkett has always taken an authoritarian view. As Home Secretary, he argued that British citizens needed a stronger sense of identity, both individually and collectively. This was something to be taught and examined in classrooms and to be enforced in citizenship tests. Identity cards were, at least initially, very much a part of this. They should be “clearly linked to citizenship [with] an important symbolic value”, Blunkett suggested in 2002, a year after he first introduced the scheme. They will “enable [individuals] to assert their identity and that they belong here”.

But it is unclear how the card could make any positive impact. On the contrary, identity cards would only “prove” what British citizens are not: not asylum seekers, not illegal workers, not suspected terrorists, not pretending to be someone else. But then again, neither are most other people. What kind of identity is that?

The ID card plan is being attacked as a “solution in search of a problem”, as too expensive, too unsafe, ineffective and as a totalitarian move against ancient civil liberties. But perhaps what British people really fear is that the state is telling them they are only a (unique) number, to be produced on request – and that without it, they have no identity at all.

It is no coincidence that the country is currently fascinated by a young man with no papers who was found, in wet clothes without labels, on a beach in Kent. So far he hasn’t spoken a word and he only seems happy when he plays the piano. The “Piano Man”, as he is known, might be an impostor or he might be genuinely disturbed and affected by memory loss. But he does have an identity: he represents escape from the system. Becoming a paperless, numberless, untagged nobody has, paradoxically, made him a celebrity. He is a conduit for our fantasies. He represents freedom, at least until he starts to speak or will be recognised.

Piano Man is the opposite of the emptiness that lies behind the non-identity card.


Further links:
UK Government information portal
Liberty
No2ID campaign


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