“I don’t want to have to carry a handbag all the time” was the way an aggressive British opponent of the compulsory carrying of identity cards (as proposed by several members of the British government) yelled it to me recently. In fairness I should add that this defender of supposed civil liberties was svelte and female. She lacked the kind of bulky clothing equipped with capacious pockets in which middle-aged males such as myself still automatically carry the British National Registration Identity Card issued to them during World War II. Mine still carries the distinctive signature of my father, since I did not learn to write until I was three. Even at the age of one month I carried that card to prove I was not a German spy, and today I still wave mv card with its British royal motto Honi soit qui mal y pense on the front at the French customs officials, to prove that I have nothing to do with France either. For men the carrying of identity cards is a belligerent proclamation of our central collective identities, whether as patriots or riotous supporters of a football team, and it carries our National Health Service code number so that in case of injury we are entitled to socialized medical treatment.
But why should the British government in peacetime in 1996 want to force women to carry identity cards? Women do not rob banks, mug elderly victims, start fights in bars, steal Porsches, vandalize phone boxes, or commit sexual assaults on sheep, and it was the rise in the incidence of enormities such as these that led the British Home Secretary, Michael Howard, to favor the introduction of identity cards. It is fundamentally unjust that the civil liberties of Britain’s women should be confined and infringed in order to curb a male population whose criminal tendencies have exploded out of all control. There is no need for Britain’s peaceful, honest, and law-abiding female population to possess, let alone be compelled to carry, identity cards. Why should they have to bother their pretty little heads about such things, or be forced to disturb the immaculate line of an expensive blouse with the ugly oblong outline of a piece of plastic, or to stop wearing tights? The common Danish female alternative of tattooing her personummer (a universal identity number that instantly identifies a Daness, right down to her DNA code) in some unmentionable place is equally offensive to British traditions and sensibilities. Worse still is the German Arbeitsbuch (work document), a bulky document listing a German bundesperson’s entire employment history and ethnic ancestry unto the tenth generation, which can only be elegantly carried with any degree of concealment by a woman whose excessive degree of bust development is abnormal even by Teutonic standards. British women could never sustain such an imposition, and no British male would be so unchivalrous as to demand that they do.
The only just, chivalrous, and affirmative solution to Britain’s identity card controversy is to compel men alone to carry identity cards, while leaving Britain’s female citizens free of any such imposition. For men, the proclamation of identity on and by their persons is anyway a standard and expected part of their way of life. My British neighbor, Russell Moy-Williams, travels to work in London every day wearing an old Silurian tie, a Hemlock College scarf, and an Essex Pioneers regimental blazer. On one lapel a small fish proclaims his religious sympathies, and on the other a tiny red buttonhole reveals that he has accepted some obscure honor from the French government. The watch-chain that encircles his comfortable stomach carries an elk’s tooth and the symbols of several other fraternal and esoteric orders. His teenage son is much the same but prefers T-shirts and plastic badges that declare his allegiances to the Toronto Blessings ice hockey team, a pop group called “Irish Weddings,” and a commitment to S & M pride week expressed through the slogan “Black and Blue is Beautiful.” His left eyebrow is penetrated by a medallion carrying a portrait of a famous Mongolian military leader, because he wants to be the only person really to the right of Genghis Khan.
Government-designed identity cards for British men are only an extension, then, of the kind of identity cards they carry anyway. The men of Britain will add them to their existing badges and wear them openly like conference nametags as a proud proclamation of a uniquely masculine identity not available to women. As for those who don’t like it—well, they can always buy a handbag.