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The only naturally stable society is a dead society.

Biometric identification and social stability.

The people of the United Kingdom have, for many decades, enjoyed relative stability and freedom of expression, freedom of oppression and been able to go about their daily activities without fear of persecution by powerful officials.  This stability and freedom exists in Britain because of the way British society is constructed and maintained.  The proposed biometric database will radically alter the balance of power and, thereby create the conditions in which instability and dictatorial oppression can occur.

Power within the United Kingdom is divided amongst four distinct groups; in no particular order these groups are:

  • Government in the form of decisions made by parliament and enacted by the civil service.
  • The courts who interpret the laws of the land and decide what is reasonable.
  • Large corporations who exert power by virtue of controlling resources.
  • The general population who exert power by providing or withholding co-operation with the other groups, mentioned above, and by producing through their labour the resources needed for society to function.

None of these groups is perfect in any way.  In every section of society we have people who hold positions of power but who are, nonetheless, selfish or ignorant or careless or greedy or evil or just plain incompetent.

Despite our collective failings and weaknesses the United Kingdom has, for many decades, avoided the kind of social collapse and agony that many other countries have experienced.  We have not been subject to the abominations that communism, fascism, or civil war have wreaked upon other nations and we have not recently seen genocide within our own islands.  It is true that we have not lived in idyllic bliss either but our social suffering has been minor compared with some of our near neighbours in recent history.  Germany suffered the indignities and agonies of Nazi fascism, Italy something similar.  The consequences of civil war in Spain are still held in the memories of the living.  The oppression of Communism was experienced by European people who, today in 2005, are still young people aged in their twenties and thirties; the “Iron Curtain” collapsed less than 16 years ago.

These evil and horrific forms of government did not occur a long time ago, nor in far away lands with cultures greatly different from our own.  The tyrannies of incompetent government are something that European people — similar to British people in history, character and culture — have experienced only recently.  Consequently we, the present inhabitants of the British Isles, cannot be arrogant in assuming that we are somehow immune and exempt from home-grown tyranny.  If we want to be sure that we avoid tyranny in our future, we would do well to understand how we and our parents and grandparents and great grandparents have avoided it for the past hundred years.

So, why is Britain a relatively stable, relatively peaceful, relatively safe and relatively tolerant society?  In the year 1905 Great Britain was the world's only superpower, dominated most of the world's oceans and was the hub of the largest empire in history.  Just one hundred years later, in the year 2005, the United Kingdom had divested itself not only of the lands of its empire, but also of its colonial attitudes and ambitions, and now exists as just one country among many.  In the intervening 100 years the social structures of the country have radically altered, with enormous changes in the ownership of land, the rights of individuals and the ethnicity of the population.  The scale of the changes can hardly be understated ... in just 60 or 70 years (a mere couple of generations and within the memory of many living people) the United Kingdom has more or less reinvented itself.  Now the purpose of this comment is not to gloat about our national successes nor to minimize our many failings.  The point being emphasized is that in many other countries in the same period, considerably smaller social changes have brought about civil war, evil dictatorships, social collapse, genocide, and barbarity.  Somehow, the United Kingdom has managed to perform what has probably been the most massive national restructuring operation in the history of our planet and has done so relatively calmly, relatively peacefully and without civil war.  If we want to continue to enjoy peace and stability we might do well to understand what we have been doing right and thus ensure that we don't change anything critical.

Indeed the sheer massive scale of successful transition from being the solo superpower to being the multi-ethnic country next door might, if we are not careful, lead us into a false sense of security about what we can achieve.  We might be tempted to think we can change absolutely anything and still always have peace and stability ... but that would be a lazy and dangerous assumption to make.  Our near neighbours in Europe and distant friends on other continents have had transitions that were vastly smaller in scope and yet dramatically more painful.  What did they do wrong that we or our predecessors somehow did right?

The fact is that our relatively tranquil existence in Great Britain can be attributed to certain specific factors.  Our distant forefathers laid a solid and reliable foundation onto which the Great of our Britain was built.  We must be careful to maintain that foundation and we must be careful not to dig it up carelessly in the pursuit of temporary pleasure or safety.

So, from what was our solid foundation built:  First those who laid the foundations acknowledged God as Lord and Creator, they accepted that they were accountable to God and they sought to honour him in the decisions they made.  They also acknowledged their failings and accepted Jesus Christ as their redeemer.  Now, we might or might not agree with their beliefs (for the purposes of the discussion, it isn't important) but, whether we like it or not, the foundation on which we peacefully stand was put in place not inspite of their beliefs but because of the beliefs that our forefathers and their successors held and handed down.  In other words their set of beliefs caused them to act in certain ways, value certain things and, as a result they put in place structures that have proven to be durable and stable.

Key aspects of those beliefs include:

  • A belief that God is sovereign and that human rulers exercise authority only on behalf of God and that human rulers will have to account to God for their exercise of power.
  • A belief that all humans were equally valuable in the sight of God.
  • A belief that all humans are subject to evil desires, that nobody is perfect and therefore that we should be slow to condemn other people for their failings.  On this belief is built the tolerance of our present society.
  • A belief that humans should seek to serve one another with humility.

Now let us be very clear that these beliefs were never held by the whole of society nor were they ever perfectly enacted by even a small section of British society.  The actions of humans always fall short of the aspirations of humans.  We dream big dreams and aim high but we don't ever reach our own goals and wherever their have been men strong in goodness and there have also been men strong in evil.  Hypocrisy and weakness pervade the actions of even the best of men.  Nonetheless in every generation a significant proportion of our former rulers have subscribed to the above beliefs and acted accordingly, and we, the population of the 21st century, are living on the foundations that they laid down as their beliefs guided them.

As a consequence of those beliefs we in Britain have:

  • A system of government that does at least acknowledge the right of the population to have some say about, and to participate in, in their own governance.  It isn't implemented as well as we would like but it does work to some extent and has proven stable.
  • A system of law that allows gives redress to the ordinary man against both government and powerful people.  This also doesn't work perfectly, but we acknowledge its importance and it is far better than the situation in most other countries in the world.
  • A system of government that does at least acknowledge that the purpose of government is to serve the population.  It is true that many (but not all) government officials seem to have forgotten that the title “minister” actually means “servant” but nonetheless even with its many imperfections our government systems are eventually held to account and officials do often have to justify their decisions.  Our system isn't perfect, but it is much better than what most other countries have.
  • A balance of power between the courts, the government, the corporations and the ordinary people.  Sometimes it works out unfairly, and often it is inelegant, slow and clumsy but this balance of power, for all of its shortcomings, has kept our country stable for many decades.  Our nation might not be functioning perfectly, but unlike many other states, we are at least still functioning.

One characteristic of the British people is that we do not recognize our own strengths as strengths and are far too quick to criticize ourselves — this itself is one of the lasting effects of having Christian concepts of humility widely taught.  Self criticism is not a terrible thing but we do tend compare ourselves with some ideal of perfection and then become despondent about how far we have fallen short of our ideal.  In fact we often compare ourselves to a perfect nation, that does not exist and never will exist.

Sometimes, instead of comparing ourselves to an idealized nation, it would be more useful to examine ourselves in the light of what other actual nations and peoples have achieved and then observe how far ahead of them we have reached.  We are quick to observe, for example, that there is more racial discrimination in Britain than we would like, but we are much slower to recognize that amongst all the nations of the world, British society has some of the best racial integration, least racial tension, and most interracial harmony.  We have problems to be sure, but we have made better progress and have far less interracial problems than do most other countries in the world, and this is because we stand on a far stronger foundation than most other countries do.

Unlike our near neighbours and distant friends, we have not had civil war, we have remained free from the recent terrors of fascism and communism, we have not experienced genocide, we do not live in a state where oppression and injustice is routine and unbearable, and our nation has not disintegrated.  On the contrary we are relatively safe, relatively harmonious and relatively stable.  Yes, we as a nation do have problems, but compared to most of the rest of the world we are actually doing rather well.

Now let us get back to the issue of biometric databases, the subject of this article.  By now the reader will, I hope, have realized that stability and freedom from government persecution are not things that we can take for granted.  If we are going to tamper with the foundations on which our nation is established then we had better have a clear idea of how those foundations were laid in order to know what is a necessary repair and what is a foolish and destructive alteration.

The reality is that if we allow our present government to implement a biometric database it will completely alter the balance of power in our country.  Not only will it alter the balance of power but it will shift that power structure from a configuration that has proven to be stable to a configuration that, in other countries, has proven to be disastrous; such a move is not to be undertaken lightly.  Once a biometric database is implemented then information, and hence power will naturally accrue to those who control the database, namely large corporations and government.  Neither the present (April 2005) Labour Party administration nor Conservative opposition party have shown much willingness to engage in a discussion of how this project might alter the country, indeed they have expressed little sign even of having a grasp of the issues.

So why, and how, would a biometric database have such potentially calamitous consequences?

Despite all assurances to the contrary, once a biometric database exists and biometric identity cards are issued it will become compulsory to carry and use the ID card.  In the first instance this is unlikely to happen because the law demands it but simply because such a supposedly perfect and centralized form of identification will become essential for performing ordinary everyday tasks:  The health service will want to use it to simplify the making and maintaining of accurate patient records.  Employers will want to use it to ensure that the people they hire are legal workers and properly qualified.  In a relatively short period of time a biometric identification card will become as indispensable to ordinary life as a telephone is today.  In other words, it might be lawfully possible to exist without using your identity card but, practically speaking, it is going to be very difficult.

The proponents of identity cards like to point out that many countries have had ID cards for many years and that they have brought many benefits but this is a dishonest, or at least, foolish comparison.  The identity cards used in other countries do not hold biometric information, they are not linked to a central computerized database and they do not therefore form a universally acceptable identity document.  These differences make an enormous difference to the risks associated with their use.

If an identity card becomes a form of universal identification currency then it will be used for an increasingly large number of transactions where proof of identity is required and to provide access to various services.  Every single transaction and access can and, most likely will, be recorded.  Of itself this is no big deal since, after all, who really cares if the government knows that you went to the doctor yesterday?  Who cares if the government knows where you bought your groceries?  You haven't got anything to hide so what have you got to fear?

Unfortunately this rosy view of identity cards and biometric databases is far too simplistic and ignores the experiences of our neighbouring countries in recent years.

Information is power, power corrupts, and even the most well meaning of governments can, and do, bend to an evil path.  The harsh reality that all peace loving inhabitants of Britain need to realize is that we, the ordinary people, have just two defences against totalitarian and barbaric regimes.  The first defence is to ensure that no government or other organization ever acquires enough power to make oppression possible.  The second defence, if the first has failed, is to be able to hide when necessary.  In the past 100 years the United Kingdom has been blessed with rulers who have been more or less benign and who have maintained, and even enhanced, the strong and stable foundations of our nation.  We cannot be sure that our future rulers will be equally benign or equally wise.  Indeed the present government has already exhibited certain dictatorial tendencies such as a complete disregard for the will of the people and a contempt for the notion of service.  Both Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister 2005) and Mr David Blunkett (Home Secretary 2004 and main advocate of biometric identity cards) have, in recent years, exhibited a welcome eagerness to do things, but neither man is commonly known for his wisdom, foresight, depth of intellect or breadth of experience.  Additionally, the recent war in Iraq showed that those government departments and employees who have been appointed to provide secret intelligence and to interpret that intelligence simply cannot be relied upon to get it right.  Furthermore, tomorrow's leaders are growing-up in today's social environment in which selfish gratification is both encouraged and lauded.  It is a foolish or massively optimistic person who assumes that tomorrow's leaders will always be better than, or at least as good as, the ones we have previously had.

Power corrupts and information is power.  Good governments can and do turn bad and leaders can and do become paranoid.  A crisis is often used to justify measures that would otherwise seem draconian or oppressive.  And then what?

If the government decides that it needs, in the interests of national security, or some other worthy cause, to silence dissent and round up the dissenters will it then matter that the government is able to pin point your location with speed and accuracy?  Will it then matter that you are unable to purchase your groceries anonymously?  If you had been a Jewish person or a trade unionist living in Germany or Italy in the 1930s would you have wanted the government to be able to trace, and indeed intercept, not only every phone call but also every trip you made to the grocery store?  Would you have gone shopping if you had known full well that the Gestapo would have been able to pinpoint your location to within a few metres and send their black courtesy car to collect you and your groceries?  If you had been a non-Jew would you have been willing to hide, and hence feed Jewish people, throughout the years of persecution if you had known that the Gestapo were able to monitor all of your grocery bills and then make enquiries as to why, in the past month, your family of three people had needed to buy food sufficient to feed eight people?

Because people in Britain have not experienced a totalitarian regime during the past several centuries it is easy for us to assume that such things belong to other lands and other eras and that dictatorial brutality somehow cannot, and will not, happen in our country, but that would be a misplaced confidence.  Such things have not happened because, even in our worst episodes of history, our leaders have acknowledged their accountability before God, and through the courage of many men and women, we have been able as a nation to maintain a stable balance of power that has prevented any one group from having sufficient power to rip the nation apart.

Now in the opening years of the 21st century, it is our turn to maintain that balance of power.  Various government persons want power to shift towards central government and somehow they are so utterly convinced of their own goodness and intelligence and wisdom (despite glaring evidence to the contrary), and of the goodness, intelligence and wisdom of all who follow them in power, that they are unwilling or unable to perceive that moving power towards the government will not lead to better government but will, in fact, create exactly the conditions that are most suitable for a despot to emerge and to thrive.

 

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