Friday, May 20, 2005

Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death

There's some superb work being undertaken by the chaps at No2ID at the moment. I think we may just manage to derail the ID Cards bill. Certainly, plans for mass civil disobedience are affot. I think I've previously said that I won't carry an ID card. (And don't worry, that's a real pledge, not a 1952 committee pledge). This is a real example of moral law-breaking: by deliberately breaking an unjust law and publicising the fact, you can show the invalidity of the law.

Currently, the ID camp are agitating for a mass petition. This is a particularly fond topic for me, as my day job is researching a DPhil on British Anti-Slavery in the nineteenth century. That movement was the great grandfather of the entire British tradition of public campaigning, which has since spread over the entire world. It is a very British concept- and one doubtlessly linked to widespread 19th century British faith in Parliament as a tool through which to win reforms, not an enemy to be torn down. The anti-slavers operated in difficult circumstances, as their first push in the 1780s coincided with state reaction against revolutionary movements and ideas. However, the combination of Parliamentary leaders (giving speeches there), mass public petitions and a campaign of national education using ultra-sophisticated techniques evolved in the following decades, reaching its height during the election of 1832.

While it may be best remembered as the first election under the Great Reform Act, it should be noted that slavery became the defining issue of the campaign, with candidates pressed to pledge how they would vote on the issue. (A controversial idea, in the days when parliament was still considered a deliberative house, and MPs were expected to make up their minds after hearing a full debate).

A key concept behind this activity is faith in the moral agency and disposable power of individual citizens. It takes supernatural belief that the seemingly impersonal and unstoppable forces of government can be diverted by ordinary people. It's tremendously healthy for democracy that we have such a vibrant culture of public campaigning and external pressure on parliament. It is probably a more effective check for democratic government than election campaigns themselves.

The parallels between slavery and ID cards may seem tenuous, but there's a theme and principle that links them, and almost every British reform movement in the past. It was articulated by Brian Harrison in an essay on 'A genealogy of reform in modern Britain' in "Anti-Slavery, Religion and Reform" (eds. Bolt & Drescher). In every movement, from temperance to feminism to anti-slavery to the CND, British reform movements have been attempting to remove a perceived unnatural power that was corrupting the natural order of things, be that unnatural power patriarchy, alcohol, slavery or nuclear deterrence. The same can be seen on both sides of the fox-hunting debate (their only difference being whether a fox or a huntsman needs protecting). Today, we fight for citizens' liberty and for the essential protection provided to our liberties by the disorganisation of the state, which would be ended when we are barcoded.

For anyone enthusiastic about beating the ID cards proposals, I strongly urge you that there is a point to petitioning and speaking up when friends ask "why would anyone mind having an ID card?". No matter how globalised our economy, seemingly powerful our politicians or determined the Home Office's mandarians are, everything that has happened in political history was the result of mortal humans who had the arrogance to demand control over their lives.