The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, December 05, 2005


There's a basic assumption in the UK that the onus falls on the authorities to prove that you're not who you say you are, rather than that it falls on you to prove that you are who you say you are - or as a cartoon in a 1993 issue of the New Statesman put it (when PM Major and then Home Secretary Michael Howard were proposing ID cards), "Because everyone is guilty until proved innocent".

Historically, this belief, principle, call it what you will, of popular resistance to state control has some interesting manifestations. As I recall, one of the complaints against Charles I was that he wanted to establish a standing army - this was resisted on the grounds that it could be used by the monarch against Parliament.

A similar principle was applied against the proposal to establish a metropolitan police force in the early 18th century, despite the violence, lawlessness and difficulty of obtaining justice that plagued the capital. A state-established, state-controlled police force smacked of French absolutism - something that English liberty stood four-square against.

In a broader sense this raises questions about the role of the state in public life. Britain continues to be a far freer nation than many of its mainland European neighbours. Despite our reputation for violence and squalor, it's far easier to get a job, rent a flat or start a business in the UK simply because you don't have government, local councils, banks or lawyers pushing their noses into citizens' business (though the debate remains, ironically, over whether we're citizens, subjects of the British Crown, or both). The absence of regulation is partly down to the fact that the Napoleonic system of central administration was never imposed on Britain (though once imposed, many countries kept it for the simple reason that it's effective). For this reason many mainland EU citizens prefer to live in Britain, despite the higher standard of living in their home countries. You don't have to jump through so many hoops in order to get to where you want to be, and it's far easier to jump sideways.

Of course, this cuts both ways. In the UK I can teach martial arts because I have a black belt. All I need is insurance. In France I'd have to pass exams and get a license, both of which are administered under a state aegis. It can be persuasively argued that the French system is better because it enforces national standards which ensure a greater degree of safety for practitioners - but if for whatever reason you fall out with the existing regulatory body, it's far harder to set up on your own.

As a final example, when I was working in Belgium ten years ago, I had to register my residency with the local police station - failing to do so could lead to deportation. This despite the fact that I was an EU citizen. Also, it was required to display your name on the door of the place you lived; if mail was being delivered for someone whose name did not appear there, it was the responsibility of the postman as an employee of the state to report the matter to the police. (How often this actually happened I don't know - probably not often in the affluent, middle-class and, above all, white areas of town of the kind in which I was staying. Nevertheless, the provision for it remained.) This sort of thing is - or ought to be - anathema to Brits, and especially the English. One of the oft-cited themes of Paxman's The English is "I know my rights". I hope they fight for them.


At 6 December 2005 at 23:31 , Blogger Joe said...

I can almost hear Herr Flick demanding "papers, please." Over and above the many arguments against ID cards on civil liberties, cost and data protection grounds there is the simple fact that the whole idea of them is simply and fundamentally un-British - as you said, when central authorities have tried to garner too much power here before we've taken their heads. I think I need a new grinding stone - need to get a good edge on my axe...

At 7 December 2005 at 14:11 , Blogger Yvonne said...

When I was in Germany, I found that you have to register with the police when you move into the area - in my case this meant travelling from Meersburg to Friedrichshafen to do so, and I didn't particularly like it.

At 7 December 2005 at 21:09 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Sounds like a ballpark experience. And indeed, yeeuch. I suppose you could say that France and Germany are different because they've done away with their monarchies, they have written constitutions, there's a Bill of Rights in France at least - in other words, the role of the citizen is established and protected by law rather than convention. Perhaps it's that, as much as habit and tradition, which makes the French and Germans comfortable with carrying ID. There's a greater sense of ownership, and the state doesn't represent "them", or not quite in the same way. I must emphasise I'm guessing.

There's a book in there - "Traditions of European Liberty", or somesuch.


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