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14 March, 2006

Prisoners of conscience

NØ2IDHaving failed to win the argument by persuasion in straightforward debate, proponents of ID cards are calling for the House of Lords to stop rejecting/amending government bills on the topic.

Tradition dictates that Peers aren't supposed to block legislation specified in the governing party's election manifesto, supposedly because the nation voted for the government on the basis of that proposed legislation, so the nation has already approved it. That's flawed majoritarian logic, of course, and even if it was accurate in principle, the specific details need to be scrutinised and debated.

Accepting (for a moment) the legitimacy of the government's claim, opponents of the ID cards database point out that it wasn't a manifesto pledge – the election promise was that ID cards would be voluntary, whereas the aspect the Lords are rejecting is that anyone applying for a passport will have to obtain an ID card too, and be entered on the national register (which is far more important than the bits of plastic). It's compulsion by stealth.

The Home Secretary has a simple response, which is so jaw-droppingly disingenuous that I can no longer take him seriously. Reported in the Guardian, Charles Clarke said:

"Passports are voluntary documents," he insisted. "No one is forced to renew a passport if they choose not to do so."
No, only if they assert their freedom to travel internationally.
In modern society, a passport is a standard aspect of life; declining something so ubiquitous isn't a reasonable expectation. By the same logic, a bank account isn't compulsory, but few would seriously expect people to store bags of cash in the mattress.
Linking ID cards to passports is in effect compulsion. To claim otherwise is to resort to the sort of hair-splitting semantics which might score points in a schoolboy debating competition but which have no justifiable place in running a country. For ****'s sake, Clarke; this isn't a game.

Voluntary means that one can opt-in to gain an alleged benefit, but that there's no material negative impact ('cost') of remaining outside the scheme. In other words, if the pre-existing situation is the baseline, opting-in could raise quality of life, but opting-out wouldn't put quality of life below the current baseline.
When one is obliged to opt-in or accept a major curtailment of one's lifestyle, that's compulsion.

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