Blunkett’s hybrid legacy

I had quite forgotten the extraordinary parallels between the story of the Gordian Knot and our own recent political history. Like me, what you probably remember is that Alexander the Great was challenged to undo the intractable Gordian Knot, and instead of faffing about with bits of string, simply whipped out his sword and hacked the whole thing apart. However, like me you may have forgotten who Gordias was in the first place. So, a brief digression:

The ancient Phrygians, in their mythical past (pre CFC), found themselves in an interregnum. Consulting an oracle, they were simply instructed to appoint as their king the next man who drove an ox-cart into the city. That man was Gordias – and so with no further ado, he was made leader. It was as transparent and representative as that. Plus ça change…

But back to our own times.

Let’s face it, an announcement by David Blunkett that the Government should abandon its plans for a national ID Card was always going to be a gift for headline-writers – and they have duly gone for it, mostly along the lines of ‘Blunkett says “scrap ID Cards”, 8 years after suggesting them’. Other commenters have noted, however, that reports of its death are exaggerated. Over at the Himmelgarten Café, for instance, the improbably-named Costigan Quist points out some of the absurdities of this new approach.

So, how different is the attention-grabbing idea Mr Blunkett aired at InfoSec 2009 yesterday? Well – what he is not suggesting is that the Government should abandon its ambition of a database of unique citizen biometrics, or that it should give up on biometric credentials. What he is proposing is that biometric passports be made mandatory.

I know what you’re thinking…

That won’t work, because as Jacqui Smith and Meg Hillier have astutely pointed out, a passport is too big to be conveniently carried in the clubbing attire of many of the young people who “can’t wait” to get their own ID card.

Blunkett is ready for that one, though – after all, he didn’t get where he is today [? Ed.] without understanding the needs of the nightclub generation. [?? Ed.] No – for an extra charge, people who want their “biometric passport” in a more convenient form can have it as, say, a small plastic card.

It’s probably just as well that he’s suggesting the plastic card option be retained, because on the face of it, that’s about all you could fit between the old policy stance and the new one.

In other words, what appeared to be a radical U-turn is actually what is more accurately called a “J-turn“. A J-turn is like a classic ‘bootleg’ turn (think ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, ‘Rockford Files’ or the ‘Dooks of Hazzard’) except that for a J-turn, the car is already going backwards before the manoeuvre is executed. And I suspect that’s what we’re seeing here. The government has less and less to gain from embarking on the implementation of a multi-billion pound IT project which both opposition parties have said they will scrap if and when Labour lose office… and less and less money with which to begin their attempt.

Time must surely be up for anything overtly labelled as a national identity card – but then, as Blunkett admitted yesterday, that was always a more or less mythical animal. Chimera-like, it was made from bits of several other beasts: a biometric passport (blamed on ICAO), bits and pieces of biometrics (maybe face, maybe fingerprints, probably not DNA), biographical information, name-and-address records, and a cost-case which deliberately sought to weld all those different genetic donor beasts into one – if you’ll pardon the name – “Gordian” mess.

What remains to be seen is whether that hybrid can be kept alive until the current government’s successors face the decision of whether or not to put it down.