Great Britain

Johnson the civil libertarian wants to have his voter ID card and eat it | Marina Hyde

“If I am ever asked,” Boris Johnson once wrote of ID cards, “on the streets of London, or in any other venue, public or private, to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am, when I have done nothing wrong and am simply ambling along and breathing God’s fresh air like any other freeborn Englishman, then I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded I produce it.”

Righto. Well, in a plot twist worthy of Dial-A-Plot-Twist, the emanation of the state turns out to be Boris Johnson himself. Yes, despite the warnings and objections of civil liberties campaigners and race equality campaigners – indeed, despite in-person voter fraud being effectively nonexistent in the UK - Johnson’s government is pushing ahead with legislation to introduce mandatory voter ID at elections. We know these plans are illiberal because the traditional hero of a Boris Johnson column – namely, Boris Johnson – has already opposed them.

Of course, in Johnson’s published oeuvre, freeborn Englishmen are forever being admired for doing exuberantly freeborn things like “beating the hedgerows with staves” – even as Johnson’s government seeks to ban any protest that is too noisy or somehow “annoying”. In Johnson’s canon, the praises are forever being sung of “peasants blind drunk on non-EU approved scrumpy” – and yet, the author’s very first act as London mayor was to immediately outlaw drinking on the Tube. I sometimes wonder if Boris Johnson is a committed civil libertarian in the same way I’m a peerless opening batsman for England.

The nagging doubt certainly crossed my mind as I sat in front of his latest podium address on Monday night, for which the dear old British public were once again invited to press their noses up against their TV sets and marvel appreciatively as the soy Churchill graciously bestowed upon them his very qualified permission to hug their own family and friends.

Each stage of the Covid pandemic has brought its fresh hells, but one of the most absolutely objectionable parts of “unlocking” is having to look grateful as the prime minister meagrely parcels out what have been standard freedoms since time immemorial, and hands them back to us like they’re some kind of special present entirely in his gift. As for the ancient rights Johnson did remove, we have been without them far longer than we would have had to be, had the prime minister not been a slave to his own ancient inability to make a tactical decision in good time last autumn.

Anyway, back to the Downing Street gifting suite. Having failed to break it gently to people that they were running out of government-sanctioned excuses not to have to see their relatives, Johnson swept on to the business of policing those who planned to. To wit: Hugging. (In fact, hugging has never been against the law.) “You should do it if you think it’s appropriate,” intoned a PM whose intimacy history has always been the benchmark of what is proper, “and if you think the risks are very, very low. But you should exercise care and common sense.” Increasingly, the only appropriate reply to this is: thanks, but I’ll do what I want, Cuck Norris.

As for the continued banning of dancing at weddings, it does seem preposterous that a man with Johnson’s self-image should think it remotely appropriate to be standing up on a day where there were four Covid deaths in the UK and acting like the preacher dad in Footloose. I was amused to stumble across a subsequent tweet addressed to Johnson by a member of the public who had just bleeding had it with this nonsense. “Maybe you don’t want to get married yourself,” she said pointedly, “but many other people do!” And you know, now she puts it like that … perhaps it does rather read like the subconscious rearguard action of someone trying to stall their own nuptials. “Of COURSE I want to get married, darling – but let’s wait till we can have 500 people and they can celebrate us rhythmically, as they would only yearn for.” (I wonder who’ll eventually pay for the wedding? At this stage of murk, let’s just count ourselves lucky if Downing Street rules out a petro-state.)

Mindful of Johnson’s endless perversions of the term “common sense”, let us return to this suspiciously unnecessary business of voter ID. Yesterday a Downing Street spokesman was insisting that you already need photo ID to pick up a parcel. When it was pointed out to this committed non-elitist that, as everyone normal knows, you don’t actually need photo ID to do this, journalists were then directed towards Post Office guidance that states you’d need photo ID if you wished to pick up a parcel for, say, your grandmother. So do make sure to take your card along when you vote for her.

Speaking of the post, there are undoubtedly problems with fraudulent postal voting – and yet the Conservatives are, strangely, not doing anything about that one. Perhaps, like complicating in-person voting, postal voting is one of those things generally judged to “favour the Tories”. (In recent years, incidentally, the main thing that “favours the Tories” is the Labour party.)

As for the government’s decision to flirt with complications that can lead to voter suppression, it calls to mind the joke John Oliver made back in 2013, in response to whatever was that year’s attempt to roll back US voting rights. Among those pushing hard to overturn electoral liberties was the state of North Carolina, where there had been precisely one documented case of in-person voter fraud during the previous presidential election. “The problem isn’t people showing up and not being who they say they are,” Oliver pointed out. “It’s person. As in one. Singular. One guy, out of four and a half million people who voted in the last election. You could have got the same result from just passing a bill that said, ‘Dave can’t vote, he knows why.’”

Likewise in today’s UK. In 2019 there was ONE conviction for in-person voter fraud in the entire UK, handed to a man who had voted twice in the European parliament elections (arguably even more pointless than it was to vote once). Yet the government is pressing ahead with legislation to spend a conservatively estimated £20m per election on stopping something that isn’t even meaningfully occurring. What sort of a return on your investment is that for the party of business? The only reasonable conclusion is that the investment is in fact in a system that will end up favouring the Conservatives. Think of them as the party of funny business, and it all makes common sense.

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