There’s a specifically English tradition that the government doesn’t concern itself with the identities of the ordinary men and women of the country. Prior to the twentieth century, births and deaths were registered by the church, taxes were collected on land or trading of particular goods. There was never a national bureaucracy keeping records of individuals.

(There’s a famous quote about how prior to 1914 Britons would hardly have any routine contact with any officials of the government. Orwell? Keynes? I can’t find it and I’m quite annoyed).

A census was introduced in 1801 to guide recruitment strategy for the Napoleonic wars, and National Registration was brought in in 1939 for the Second World War, and abolished later. Measures such as National Registration smacked of Napoleonic totalitarianism. The government exists to serve the people, not the people for the government. My life is no business of the government until I bring myself to its notice, by committing a crime, or travelling abroad, or handling large amounts of money, etc.

I was firmly aligned with that tradition, supporting No2ID, opposing Voter ID, even grumbling incoherently about CCTV cameras.

I still really like the idea of such a light-touch, minimalist state that has no reason to know how many people live in a town or what that bloke’s name is who is sitting on the bench outside Costa. Warm feelings of free Anglo-Saxons and the Wintagemot, and all that (although of course in pre-modern societies nobody had anonymity, so that’s a kind of fantasy).

But we don’t live in such a state, or anything remotely resembling one. Today we live in a state which relies on at least a quarter of the money earned by each member of the working population for its survival, which provides an array of services from traffic direction to heart surgery to everyone, and also in which a dozen private companies already know how many people live in each street and what the bloke on the bench outside Costa watched on TV last week.

As I mentioned at the weekend, the state also has a register of births, a passport database, a register of electors, a driver licensing database, a National Insurance database.

We are not talking in 2024 about whether or not identity details are a concern of government, we are only talking about whether the government should manage its identity database efficiently or inefficiently.

People who are of any positive value to society are massively visible to the state. Citizens of the nation of car drivers, taxpayers, glow in cyberspace like planes approaching an airport. The only people moving in darkness are illegal immigrants, gypsies and underclass, flashing on just once a fortnight to collect their cheques.

Totalitarian is a strong word, but it is obviously the case today that to the extent that a government of an advanced country leaves any area of its citizens’ lives alone today, that is a policy choice, and not either a result of any limit of capability or of tradition. For better or worse, limitation on government today comes from government, and there’s no sense pretending otherwise.

I’ve written a few times before that Feudalism cannot exist today because it was caused by the technological incapability of central government to supervise regions. It seems equally true that the individualism of classical liberalism cannot exist in a world of £20 CCTV cameras and 4TB SSDs. It depends not on limited government but hogtied government.

Of course surveillance does not directly impact our freedom of action. It doesn’t necessarily mean we will become much more tightly limited in our actions. But of course, in practice we already are. We can’t say what we like, we can’t burn what we like, we can’t buy or sell what we like —not those of us with regular jobs and fixed addresses and cars, anyway. Why weep over the hostile underclass facing the same supervision?

Is growing totalitarianism the only future? Yes, probably; as I say, it’s a matter of technology. I would prefer otherwise, but if you’re going to act politically as if the world were other than it is, you might just as well be an anarcho-communist.

Ineffective government is bad government. Effective government is often bad government too, but at least there’s a chance. My view is that the intense stupidity of politics is to a large extent an effect of the practical impotence of politicians. Make those with responsibility less impotent, and at least there’s an incentive for them to become less stupid. (The aligning of power with responsibility is the other requirement, the central NRx principle, but doing that is a separate question. Today it’s the case that nobody has power).

I feel bad writing this. I am betraying what I once stood for. Give me a programme for achieving personal freedom that starts with keeping government databases more incomplete and inaccurate than Amazon’s, and I’ll recant.

One thought on “Yes2ID”

  1. When a government sponsored initiative fails, it is usually because the government wants it to fail. Take, for example, the US government sponsored project to beat a path through the impenetrable jungle and join up Panama to Colombia. (I can see their point. It’s bad enough having everyone from Panama northwards possessing the ability to drive all the way to the US border, without extending this privilege to South America. Europe is not in a hurry to create a tunnel from Spain to Morocco.)

    Similarly, the Japanese Emperor’s insistence that a formal declaration of war should be given to the US before Pearl Harbor, which did not quite make it because the typist was too slow. The prosecution of certain IRA members, which failed due to legal technicalities. (Those being prosecuted were touts, agents of the Government.) The whole Rwanda project, thwarted by any number of court decisions.

    My fellow Iceland customers who voted for Brexit did so in the belief that they would no longer be troubled by Polish neighbours. We were expecting that the Polish supermarkets would have to close down, for lack of customers and because it was no longer economical to import from Poland. They have not. Instead ethnic change continues apace: looking on the streets here there seems to be vastly more Africans.

    The official population of the United Kingdom is 67 million: Utilities Companies estimate it as 90. Our government doesn’t want us to know how many illegal asylum seekers there are in the country, just as the German Government doesn’t want its people to know the ethnicity, origins and immigration status of convicted rapists.

    I assume that your conversion to the cause of efficient government has some reason for it. As regards IDs, I would concur that an efficient system would useful: I am not of the anti-government encroachment school. I noticed that when library books go missing, this is ascertainable because the computer says that nobody has taken them out for years. However, human beings were able to disappear into the maws of Fred West’s personal cemetery because there was no system which recorded their interaction with the state or anything else.

    However, I do not believe that the introduction of IDs would actually achieve whatever purpose you want it to: the Government would see to that. Too many people are profiting by the inefficiency.

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