Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification 1500–2010

Edward Vallance on a thought-provoking analysis of personal identification through the centuries

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Reviewed by: Edward Vallance
Author: Edward Higgs
Publisher: Continuum
Price (RRP): £25

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Edward Higgs’s entertaining, broad-ranging and thought-provoking book looks at the ways and means of establishing personal identity in England from the late medieval period up to the present day.

The book is both informative and contentious. Higgs challenges the idea of a move from the apparently ‘face-to face’ society of early modern England – in which identity was assured by the static and close-knit nature of the local community – to an anonymous, industrialised, urbanised country in which the difficulty of discerning who someone was led to an exponential proliferation of forms of identity.

As the noted case of Martin Guerre (a famous imposter) in 16th-century France demonstrated, knowledge of the physical appearance of person and/or of their biography was no obstacle to misidentification or fraud.

Similarly, the controversy over the ‘Tichborne claimant’ revealed that, even in the age of photography, it was still possible for some members of Victorian society to mistake a fat butcher from Wagga Wagga, Australia for a svelte English nobleman. Indeed, the ‘Claimant’s’ fraudulent adoption of Sir Roger Tichborne’s identity was only conclusively confirmed due to the real Sir Roger having chosen to adorn himself with an identifying mark usually only the preserve of ‘deviants’ and criminals – the tattoo.

Strikingly, Higgs argues that the growth of an ‘ID culture’ was actually a symptom of growing civil liberties not increasing state control.

Rather than being a product of the invasive ‘big state’, relentlessly keeping tabs on the actions of its citizens, Higgs suggests that the growth of formalised procedures for confirming identity was a consequence of the advent of mass democracy, as legislators sought ways to distinguish legitimate voters from the unregenerate criminal classes. He notes, for example, that most of the 1832 Reform Act was devoted to the question of voter registration.

The denouement of this story, with the Blair government’s ID card scheme, is again, Higgs suggests, a facet of this same phenomenon. Rather than a sign of creeping authoritarianism, he argues that the plan was part and parcel of New Labour’s individualist message.

Blair’s ID card was no more or less than the political equivalent of a ‘store card’ entitling the citizen-consumer to their full range of civic benefits.

Higgs’ argument is a persuasive one, even if he does underplay the influence of national security concerns as a factor in prompting the proliferation of ID tests.

However, this is a minor criticism of an intelligent and ambitious book which offers a refreshingly optimistic conclusion: if the ‘ID state’ has emerged as a consequence of mass democracy, Higgs cautiously suggests that mass democracy may also provide the remedy.

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Edward Vallance is the author of A Radical History of Britain (Abacus, 2010)