Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification 1500 to the Present by Edward Higgs - review by Chandak Sengoopta

Chandak Sengoopta

Getting to Know You

Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification 1500 to the Present


Continuum 286pp £25

We all have fat wallets nowadays, bulging not with cash but with innumerable pieces of plastic. These ‘cards’ have specific functions but they all start by validating the cardholder’s identity, usually by means of a particular number that is unique to us and which we are enjoined to learn by heart. Together with security cameras, mobile phone signals and computer cookies, our cards ensure that we are always under some kind of surveillance and monitoring. There was a time when citizens of liberal democracies used to laugh at regimes where subjects had to carry their ‘papers’ at all times and present them on demand. Not any more – all of us are now under perpetual scrutiny and, as Edward Higgs shows in this eye-opening book, we have even come to like it.

Identifying the English is a history of the different means by which individ-uals have been identified in England from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. When we think of identification, we often think of techniques such as fingerprinting or DNA matching that are still largely restricted to police use. But the identification of individuals is a far more wide-ranging business and, in its basic forms, almost as old as society itself. Any licence or permit issued to a particular individual is also a form of identification, as are signatures, seals and even names. Obviously, this is not to imply that nothing has changed in modern times but simply to remind ourselves that civilised life is probably impossible without some way to identify specific individuals. Would we really prefer to be identified only as nameless members of a family, tribe or race? Also, identification, as Higgs rightly emphasises, has some very positive aspects. Property rights, benefit claims, crime detection – all of these ultimately depend on the identification of specific individuals.

There is a tenacious idea that earlier societies, less anonymous and more face-to-face than ours, did not feel any need to label, number and identify individuals. It wasn’t quite like that, Higgs shows. Early modern societies were more decentralised, but within that looser structure, and despite the absence of modern technology, individuals still had to identify themselves to authorities. In the days of the old Poor Law, for example, there was no national bureaucracy keeping tabs on those who sought help. Benefits could not be obtained, however, without convincing the ‘local worthies of the parish’ about one’s identity and the merits of one’s claim. Official documents were used fairly extensively in other contexts, even though there was no single database holding personal information on every citizen. None of this, contrary to our utopian assumptions, was enough to prevent ‘identity theft’. There was plenty of fraud in early modern times and forged signatures were far from unknown.

Centralisation of identification came, Higgs argues, with the growth of a centralised state: it was the state’s priorities that determined when and to what extent citizens were required to validate their identity. For more than half this period, between 1750 and 1850, the primary concern of the state was with war and associated matters: ‘Hence the development of identification by dossier in the armed forces, merchant marine and Militia, and the enhanced bureaucratic systems for pinpointing aliens during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.’ In the subsequent century, 1850–1950, deviants, criminals and aliens came to assume more and more importance for the state. This was when new forensic techniques were introduced – including fingerprinting, which was imported from colonial India, where it was much more than a purely forensic procedure – and the passport became institutionalised. Then, the development of national systems of welfare provision in the twentieth century necessitated the secure identification of the deserving, the respectable and the truly needy. The British state, however, remained reluctant to identify individual bodies and the idea of fingerprinting every citizen and establishing a national identity register was unthinkable. Forms and bureaucratic checks sufficed until growing concerns about terrorism, welfare cheats and benefit tourism weakened the resistance to physical identification.

We may not yet have the biometric national identity cards that New Labour was so keen on but, as Higgs points out, ‘the increasing lack of trust between State and citizens’ means that there is no hope of freedom from surveillance. He also provides a fascinating analysis of how our resistance to impersonal scrutiny has been reduced over the years by the growth of such apparently minor things as store loyalty cards – how many of us really worry about supermarkets tracking our personal buying habits as long as they give us loyalty points that can reduce our future bills? – and a misplaced faith in the specificity of DNA matching in high-profile criminal cases.

Well researched, full of intriguing facts and compelling arguments, Identifying the English reveals how the supposedly great things about postmodern British democracy – conspicuous consumption, extensive social welfare, free markets, the free movement of people – are all ultimately dependent on the identification and surveillance of individuals. Occasionally, Higgs’s approach seems a bit too descriptive, a bit too focused on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’, but that is probably inevitable in a synoptic survey of such a long period. Moreover, there are many compensations. Perhaps the greatest of these comes in the book’s final pages, where Higgs, with reference to a vast array of rarely explored material, turns to the contemporary period. This discussion, which is almost worth the price of the book, demonstrates how, while seeking to avoid the rule of one malevolent, Stalin-like Big Brother, we have signed ourselves over to a multitude of Blairite Little Brothers, whose grand project is to turn the state into a supermarket where everything is on offer except such outmoded things as privacy or individual liberty. I have rarely read anything so chilling.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend