British National ID Card: Pros and Cons

With a recent commentary in Die Zeit (Germanic Character), Jürgen Krönig takes up the controversy in the UK over the introduction of a national ID card there. Germany has already had a national identity card for some time, but the subject can still be amusing to Zeit readers because, up to now, to many British – most vitally to Lady Thatcher when she was prime minister – the very idea smacked of something “Germanic,” i.e. something appropriate only for those ultra-obedient types over there on the other side of the North Sea who obediently wait for the green at every pedestrian crossing-light.

But times have changed: Parliament has given the go-ahead.

(The British Home Secretary, directly in charge of implementing the program over the next couple of years, has also changed, but the new top UK internal security official, Charles Clarke, is just as determined to do so as the old, David Blunkett.) But only after a debate in which Krönig detects wild exaggerations coming from both sides. Those against have warned against the end of democracy and freedom, while those for have lauded the ID card as the cure-all for the international drug-trade, misuse of political asylum, and of course terrorism.

As he points out, though, the Mohammed Atta al-Qaeda cell seemed to have little problem in carrying out their mission even as they first grouped together and planned it in supposedly-intrusive Germany. No, national ID cards according to Kröger can only somewhat “ease” police efforts against these scourges. What they can rather do something substantial about is illegal immigration and misuse of social welfare programs. For, just as is the case with most of the other European countries overloaded with asylum-seekers awaiting the decision about whether they will be allowed to stay, in England not being allowed to stay usually translates into staying anyway, but illegally, as rejected applicants simply melt away into the surrounding society.

The point of the ID card, then, according to Kröger, is to shore up support for the welfare state among the broad tax-paying classes who pay for it and who understandably lose patience with the thought of their tax money going to those who do not “deserve” it. His logic is persuasive, yet why is it, then, that most of the debate on the introduction of ID cards has revolved around fighting terrorism, a cause this measure supposedly won’t contribute much to? Are ID cards a good idea for true reason B that have nonetheless been sold to the British electorate for false reason A? And if true reason B, while valid per se, would on its own be considered not to bring sufficient absolute benefits to outweigh the erosion of civil liberties the introduction of such a measure entails – what then?

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