Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Mill, liberty and ID cards

On Monday night those of us not worn smooth by constant fringes over the weekend trudged our way to the National Liberal Club for an event organised by the John Stewart Mill Institute. The lecture was entitled John Stewart Mill and Actual Liberty, and was presented by the fantastically bemaned Professor A C Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, London.

Grayling sought to set our understanding of liberty and that of Mill in the context of what he saw as the emerging concept of liberty through the ages. At the end he sought to link this to “actual liberty” in our time, concentrating mostly on the excrescence that is the Government’s ID card scheme.

The bulk of the lecture was therefore a tour through the ages from Erasmus to Mill and beyond, reminiscent of Lord Acton’s History of Freedom in Christianity. Half a millennium ago liberty was the preserve of aristocrats and kings; the rest of us were serfs or at least subjects. But in the early 16th century began the first stirrings of liberal thought, as first Erasmus and later the protestant reformers began to discuss freedom of conscience. From freedom of conscience came freedom of thought more generally – if we are free to worship God in our own way, is it not also logical to look at the world in our own way. Once free to question God and nature, it was only logical that we would question our rulers, and so the Enlightenment logically led to the Glorious Revolution in England and (more belatedly) the American and French Revolutions. And once we were free it became natural to wonder why others were not, so that the 18th century saw a flourishing of emancipation movements: the campaign against slavery is currently the most germane, and triggered others such as the movement for the emancipation of women.

Having set out this context, Grayling turned to Mill and noted that one of Mill’s greatest concerns was the tyranny of the majority. Aware of the march of progress and the inevitability of an ever-expanding franchise, Mill was well aware that demos might become the greatest tyrant of all. (I have often thought about writing a posting on the inherent tension within Liberal Democracy). Mill argued that the State only had a right to limit people’s freedom where their actions might impact upon others – the State has no right to interfere in what individuals do to themselves.

What bearing does this have on “Actual liberty” – our experience of liberty today? Grayling began by noting that in 1975 just about everybody was free, and compared it to the situation in 1500 when freedom was the private preserve of the rich and powerful. However, we were now in danger of losing that liberty, giving it up in pursuit of the chimera of security. He illustrated this through the execrable ID card scheme. We are often told that ID cards will hold no more information that the dozens of cards we carry with us all the time; my loyalty cards and credit cards tell people where I shop and what I buy and so feed information to advertisers and store managers. However, these are all schemes that we choose to opt into: we are not required to have a Visa card, to carry it or to produce it. But ID cards must be compulsory or they are pointless.

The justification for them is based upon what Grayling considers the most monstrous illusion of our times (as touted by David Blunkett and two European interior ministers in an article published several years ago): that Government’s primary responsibility is to protect the security of its citizens. In fact, noted Grayling, Government’s primarily responsibility is to protect our liberty, and while our freedom to live is one key liberty, it is not the only one (and, he might have added, is worth little on its own). ID cards, rather than enhancing our liberty, will limit it, with little hope that it will deter terrorism.

Grayling also noted that when ID cards were introduced in 1939 only two Government departments had access to the information behind them. By 1945 this had expanded to 62. He added that they were introduced when “300,000 soldiers were massed across the Channel, and their associated bombers were dropping thousands of bombs on us a night”. He compared this to the present situation, where at most 3,000 enemies are massed against us and their bombers do not strike every year.

Finally, the point was made that the present scenario has echoes of George Orwell’s 1984 and the perpetual war between Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia. The War on Terror has no defined conditions for its completion, which means that (as with the situation in 1984, and also the Cold War) it can be used to justify ongoing and in essence permanent “emergency measures”. Just as Eisenhower warned against the “Military-Industrial Complex”, so Grayling warned against what one might call (though he did not use the term) the “Security-Industrial Complex”, of which the biometric data companies are a significant part.

The full lecture is due to be published by the John Stewart Mill Institute shortly.

1 comment:

ilias said...


here is a little comment about your article, hope you ll find it usefull! I don't really agree about your ID views...

I put it on my blog if you want to have a look:


ilias Benjelloun