My great hope for the general election was a fond one. I thought it would be nice if just for a few weeks, members of the new government would give straight answers to straight questions – now that honesty could pose no threat to getting votes.

It turns out that “nothing has changed” – for real, not in the way Theresa May deployed the phrase. Jonathan Reynolds, the new business secretary, was as vague as ever on every topic when we interviewed him on Times Radio this weekend. Except for one subject. I was startled by his bluntness when I asked him about the possible introduction of identity cards, a proposal floated by the former Prime Minister Tony Blair that day in The Sunday Times.

“I can rule out ID cards for you. That’s not part of our plans”, he declared. You don’t often get answers like that these days, especially from careful middle-ranking team players like Reynolds. My immediate assumptions were either that the matter had been discussed at Cabinet level already or  that Reynolds had overstepped his mark. 

Later in the day the Home Secretary Yvette Cooper was characteristically less committal, evading the ID cards question but insisting “well we’re clear that enforcement is a big concern and that’s why we’re setting up a new Enforcement and Returns unit” for immigrants. 

Another Labour veteran Fiona Millar, a 10 Downing Street aide and partner of Alastair Campbell, weighed in on X with the tweet “Really struggling to understand the arguments against ID cards.”

The last Labour government inflicted deep wounds on itself in the struggle to bring in ID cards. Sir Keir Starmer will need all his luck and skill to avoid another ugly row over the issue. After all, we are more dependent on information technology than we were twenty years ago. And politicians are looking to IT for some of those efficiency savings they are depending on for their spending plans. 

Punting for the long grass, “if we’re going to hark back to advice from former prime ministers”, Jonathan Reynolds adopted the old Blair-Brown slogan “We’ll be tough on crime, we’ll be tough on the causes of crime”. Back in the noughties the Blair government’s push for ID cards was very much driven by law and order concerns. It was put forward following domestic terrorism attacks although the public was more in favour of cards to cut benefit fraud, health tourism and bogus asylum seekers. 

The Labour government was rebuffed by a Commons rebellion against extending detention without charge for terror suspects. Its plans for compulsory ID also sparked heated debate. Civil Liberties campaigners on the left united with libertarians on the right. Boris Johnson warned of a “creepy…loss of liberty”. Jacob Rees Mogg complained that Britain had never been “’ papers please society” – instinctively translating the Nazi era “Ausweis bitte!” from the original German. 

Legislation for ID cards was eventually passed in 2006 but never implemented. Alan Johnson, the last Labour Home Secretary until Cooper, shelved the plans. The incoming Conservative Liberal Democrat repealed the law. 

Any attempt to introduce ID cards could come into conflict with Sir Keir Starmer’s pledge outside Number 10 to “tread more lightly on your lives”. But the former Director of Public Prosecutions is planning on using a security clamp down to deal with small boats and to process migrants. 

The argument over ID cards has also moved on. Security is no longer the strongest argument put forward by advocates. They argue that they are effectively happening anyway and should be managed and made use of by the state. 

Tony Blair united with his old adversary William Hague to make the case a year ago with a discussion paper, which they publicised in the Times. “In a world in which everything from vaccine status to aeroplane tickets and banking details are available on our personal devices, it is illogical that the same is not true of our individual public records”, the former Prime and Leader of the Opposition wrote.  

Since most people now have mobile phones, their assumption is that most people would not need a physical card anymore, an ID could be like the NHS app, although a physical card would be available for those who preferred it. 

Critics point out the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in the advance of countries introducing a National Digital Transformation for access to public services. But all governments, including the new Labour one, are looking to technology and especially to Artificial Intelligence, to dramatically improve the efficiency and to reduce the cost of administration. These benefits will not be achieved unless there is a smooth interface with all citizens, Commercial organisations already make it a precondition of access to many of their services. 

Welcome or not, the former prime minister is pressing his cause. This week the Tony Blair Institute is holding its annual “Future of Britain” Conference. Blair’s keynote presentation is “Reimagining the state: governing in the age of AI, followed by his talk with Demis Hassabis of DeepMind.

 In his newspaper column of “advice for Sir Keir” he argues: “we need a plan to control immigration. I believed the best solution was a system of identity, so that we knew precisely who has a right to be there. With, again, technology, we should move, as the world is moving, to digital ID.” 

Blair followed up with an implicit threat or warning. “If not, new border controls will have to be highly effective”.

Experts dispute whether the lack of ID cards is making the UK and the Irish Republic, which has had a similarly inconclusive debate, into magnets attracting illegal migration. They are not an issue at the point of entry since most arrivals offer no documentation. Some claim that the absence of a requirement for ID subsequently makes it easier to fade into society and obtain work and access to public services.  

The affront to the liberty of the individual depends on the circumstances in which “papers” can be demanded by the authorities. ID cards are not a point of contention in most EU member states. As a consequence of Brexit, UK citizens entering the EU will have to provide fingerprints and other bio ID every time they enter the Eurozone – an inconvenience somewhat invalidating the earlier libertarian complaints about ID cards of arch Brexiteers like Johnson and Rees Mogg.  

As Rees Mogg admitted the Conservative party also unsuccessfully attempted voter suppression with its Voter ID stipulations biased to favour the elderly.

A properly debated and introduced ID system could even “tread more lightly” on citizens, harassed on all fronts. The new government will not want to follow Blair in making a big principled “thing” of the idea. But its ministers won’t be able to rule out, or evade discussion, of ID cards for very long.

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