11:25, June 27 189 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-27 11:25:03
At last it’s clear: David Davis is against identity cards – except for EU nationals

Ever since the Brexit campaign promised to “take back control” of Britain, it’s been quite apparent that nostalgia has taken a new front seat in British politics.

You don’t need to travel very far back in time, however, to find the last incarnation of identity cards in British political debate. Introduced by the then Labour government in 2008, they were despised by human rights campaigners and Tories alike. It was only in 2010 that a Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition made unceremoniously scrapping the scheme one of its very first tasks in office.

In those days, David Davis was not Brexit secretary – the existence of such a job then was beyond even Nigel Farage’s wildest fantasies. He was once a passionate opponent of intrusive government policy.

Such was Davis’s strength of opposition to ID cards – which he powerfully denounced as the “database state” – that he resigned his position as shadow home secretary earlier that year. Those were strange and counterintuitive times, when you had to rely on Tory libertarians to stick up for human rights. Perhaps the only thing predictable about 2017 so far is that rightwing populists such as Davis have now reverted to a more natural state of illiberality.

The proposed new system of ID cards – set out by Theresa May in a policy paper on post-Brexit EU citizens’ rights earlier this week – would apply to all EU nationals lucky enough to be granted “settled status” in the UK. The paper states that these EU nationals will have their details stored in a central Home Office database. Whether the data will separately manifest itself in an ID card or remain an entry on the register has yet to be decided.

It is also beside the point. The main opposition to ID cards, as championed by none other than Davis, has always been the existence of the central database itself, whether or not its data is reproduced in a shiny bit of plastic or not.

“It is not the job of government to collect and store vast amounts of biographical and biometric data belonging to innocent people,” said Damian Green, who also passionately campaigned against ID cards before enjoying his current role as first secretary of state and minister for the cabinet office.

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Theresa May sets out plan for EU nationals in UK – video

Davis went further, attacking the discriminatory nature of the way ID cards were introduced. “It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners, those who have no choice but to accept the cards,” he lamented. “It marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

Typical indeed. Now that Davis, Green and others are in office, EU nationals will be singled out for differential treatment by exactly the kind of database they once so opposed. It’s exactly the kind of selective discrimination against non-British people that so many who voted against Brexit feared would happen next.

This principle is paramount. But there are more practical concerns with identity databases of this kind too. The cost of Labour’s £85m scheme drew the ire of Tories in opposition – how much will the new version cost? And what about the security implications?

Davis helpfully explained these implications – which he called the “honey-pot problem” – in some detail in opposition. “Because they are so valuable,” he said, “they attract the malevolent attention of large numbers of hackers, fraudsters, criminals and even terrorists. Under sustained attack, even such sophisticated organisations as Microsoft and the Pentagon have succumbed, so what chance the Home Office?”

In a year when the NHS was among the public institutions around the globe paralysed by one of the worst ransomware attacks in history, in a week when MPs were locked out of their email because of an allegedly state-sponsored hack, it is worth asking why the Conservatives feel so much more confident in the British government’s cyber-security arrangements now than they did in 2008. “Most ministers are very illiterate about any serious technology,” Davis complained back then. It’s another complaint that has lost none of its merit over time.

Davis’s main defence, faced with inevitable allegations of hypocrisy, is that the proposed new ID card is actually not an ID card, because the EU nationals forced to have it would not actually be required to carry it around. “It is rather like your birth certificate,” he suggests.

Perhaps Davis is hoping that, in his Damascene conversion from defender of civil liberties to arch-foe, he won’t be alone in appearing to have been born again.