30 June 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 July 2005

I know columnists are supposed to have trenchant opinions about everything, but I just can’t get myself worked up over identity cards. After weeks of reading all the arguments and chewing them over, I’ve come to an unpalatable conclusion: frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

An outrageous assault on all the liberties the freeborn Englishman has held dear since Magna Carta, as the civil liberties lobby would have it? Give us a break. We’re already under potentially constant surveillance from the state and from various commercial interests whose records it can access and co-ordinate with ease — and ID cards wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference.

In the past week, I’ve filed my tax return online and been paid by an employer whose records are sent as a matter of course to the Inland Revenue and to whomsoever it is these days that deals with National Insurance and pension contributions. Direct debits have gone out of my bank account to pay my council tax, mortgage, various utility bills and trade union and Labour Party subs. I’ve used a debit card to buy groceries from Sainsbury’s, a carpet from the Co-op, rail tickets, books and CDs, several rounds of drinks and a couple of meals. (And when I ordered online at Sainsbury’s I was reminded what I bought when I shopped there in the last three months.)

I need a swipe card to get into work, though I’ve no idea whether the machine that lets me in records my arrival. The computer in the local library retains the information on my borrowings. And I’m recorded on countless closed-circuit television cameras whenever I leave the house or the office.

OK, I use a firewall on my computer at home and regularly sweep my system for spyware — but it would be a piece of cake for the state to monitor my email and web surfing. The same goes for my mobile phone usage, right down to tracking where I am whenever my phone is on. Next time I go abroad the chances are that my passport details will be logged by some official at some point on the journey. Thank the Lord I’m not a driver burdened with licence records and congestion charge fines . . .

Sometimes, it’s true, I find this all rather intrusive. For Sainsbury’s to remind me that my “usual” includes 20-odd beers and half-a-dozen Italian red wines is, well, sobering. I’m sick of junk mail and spam churned out by companies and campaigns that have my details on their databases. And in my nightmares I worry that if it came to the crunch and the BNP or Respect won state power, it would be all too easy for the bastards to track me down.

But the bastards aren’t in power, and for the most part I’m not that bothered by the fact that my movements and habits are constantly recorded and stored. It’s one of those things about modern life you put up with in return for the convenience of getting goods when you need them and avoiding queues and form-filling.

My real gripe is that the system doesn’t work properly. Three years ago I was the victim of a crude attempt at identity theft. Someone had picked up something addressed to me at a flat (in a shared block) I’d left a couple of years before, and had applied for several credit cards in my name. The credit card companies did not issue the cards and reported the attempted fraud to the police — who did nothing — and to the companies that list people’s credit ratings. They promptly put me on a blacklist. Result: an all-round pain in the butt that took the best part of two years to sort out.

A state ID card would have been a help in all that: it would have made it clear that I was not the person applying for credit cards in my name. I’d be quite happy to spend £93, or even £200, to make sure it didn’t happen again.

But I was unlucky, and no one who has not been the subject of an attempted identity sting can see the insurance value of an ID card. It just looks like a massive waste of money.

As for the other supposed benefits — security against international terrorists, benefit fraudsters, health service tourists and illegal workers — I just don’t buy them. Al-Qaida could handle ID cards, no problem. The only impact on illegal immigrants would be to depress their wages. And I don’t believe the Daily Mail on the level of health service tourism and benefit fraud.

So this is one where I cop out, lacking all conviction. ID cards are not worth a fight one way or the other. They are neither a key political priority nor the enemy of all we hold dear. The government has all sorts of other things it should be getting on with — and civil libertarians who want to pick a fight with it should be concentrating their efforts on its outrageous plans to ban smoking in pubs.

5 June 2005


Has anyone come up yet with any position better than (genuine, aka no CAP or textile or steel protectionism) free trade? I only ask.

2 June 2005


I wouldn't quite endorse everything that Timothy Garton Ash has to say in the Guardian today, (read it here), but it's close to the truth:
Visions are invoked of Blair and Britain riding to the rescue of the European project, during our presidency of the union in the second half of this year, with a galvanising insistence that what Europe needs now, more than ever, is British-style economic and social reform. Only thus can we face up to the dragons of globalisation. The hour of London has come. Cry God for England, Tony and St George!

This analysis is both completely right and absolutely wrong. It's completely right to say that more reform is the only way the more developed countries in Europe will prevent jobs continuing to leach away, both to central and east European countries with cheap skilled labour and, on a larger scale, to Asia. With all its faults, Blairism - more accurately, Blair-Brown-ism - is the closest any European country has come to combining American-style enterprise with European-style solidarity . . .

At the same time, the analysis is absolutely wrong. For the surest way to ensure that Europe does not adopt this necessary programme is for the British prime minister to advocate it, in missionary mode, at this particular juncture. The French, and now also the Dutch, have just delivered a resounding no, both to the treaty and to what they see as a British Europe. The perfect moment, then, for a British prime minister to say: "So, mes amis, you have spoken, and I conclude that what you really need is a British Europe!"


Bob Woodward tells loads we didn't know about the Watergate story – the greatest scoop of the past century – in the Washington Post here.

1 June 2005


The Dutch have voted "no" too, which makes it pretty much inconceivable that the Brits will hold a referendum, which means that the European constitutional treaty is dead. Cue sighs of relief all round for Tony Blair and his government, crowing from Eurosceptic chumps et cetera – but what now for Europe's institutional arrangements?

It's clear that the French and Dutch referendum results were rejections of the institutional status quo as well as of the treaty's proposals (even if they were also about other things). And the key point that everyone sensible in the "no" camp was making was that the EU was insufficiently democratic and open.

So something needs to be done soon – if not tomorrow – to establish the EU's democratic legitimacy. Part of that must include opening up its workings more to the scrutiny of national parliaments. But in the end I can't see any solution other than increasing the credibility of the European Parliament. And that means massively augmenting its powers over the Commission and the Council of Ministers as well as clamping down ruthlessly on expenses scams.

In other words, the French and Dutch votes make the case for a democratic federal European polity stronger not weaker.