New Statesman – 28 January 1933


It always seems odd to me that any man who has not committed a crime and has no intention of committing a crime should object to having his finger-prints taken. Some people would probably say that any prisoner who puts up a fight with the police rather than have his finger-prints taken shows by doing so that he has a bad record or, at least, a bad conscience; but I doubt this. For many people who have never been in the hands of the police and who can never by any possibility fall into the hands of the police have an equal horror of confiding the whorls on the points of their fingers to a reference-book at Scotland Yard. There is never a suggestion made in a newspaper that we should all have our finger-prints taken but some lover of liberty writes a violent protest against the outrage. I have myself no strong feeling one way or the other, but I am curious as to the reason for this obviously deep-rooted feeling. If it were based on the theory that finger-prints are untrustworthy as evidence, and that reliance on finger-prints might lead to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s being convicted of holding up a bank-clerk, the objection would be as rational as it would be insurmountable. Many people, however, I fancy, would be equally dogged objectors, even if they believed finger-prints to be an absolutely infallible method of identification.

Probably, it is the association of finger-prints with crime that makes the ordinary virtuous citizen wish to have nothing to do with them. He feels that the police are paid to find things out about burglars and muggers, and not to examine the finger-ends of people like himself. To deposit his finger-prints at Scotland Yard would seem to him to brand him as a potential criminal. Besides this, he loaths the prying eye of that cold monster, the State. Man – at least in England – has always hated the State. He believes in the State as an instrument for keeping other people in order, but he holds that it should keep its fingers out of his own affairs. He bitterly resented the Income Tax when it was first imposed, because it gave the State the right to ask him how much money he was earning – a fact which he kept secret even from his wife and children. Here was an inquisition as intolerable as, if less bloodthirsty than, the Spanish. If the State had the right to ask an Englishman how much money he was making, where was the liberty for which Pym and Hampden, and so on, had fought and – some of them – died? I myself hold the opinion that every citizen should be compelled to declare his income for all to see on a tablet under the number of his house; but few Englishmen would agree with me. Even though the Income Tax authorities know, and the bank-manager knows, the ordinary Englishman does not like his neighbours to know exactly how much money he possesses. It is his secret, and strangers have no right to be inquisitive. Never is the Englishman more strong and silent than when hiding the truth about his income.

His dislike of State inquisitiveness was equally manifest when in the middle of the eighteenth century it was first proposed to take a census of the population. This proposal was vehemently attacked as “subversive of the last remains of English liberty,” and the orthodox lovers of liberty recalled in support of their arguments the disasters that befell the Israelites as the result of a census taken in the reign of King David. The census, which to us today seems so innocuous and and useful a method of acquiring information, savoured in those days both of tyranny and of atheism. There are still, I believe, a few who detest it; apparently there are women who object as strongly to confiding their ages to a government department as most women object to confiding their ages to the readers of Who’s Who. Acquiescent though the majority of Englishmen have become in the silken tyranny of the census, however, there were limits beyond which they would not permit the Paul-Pryism of the State to go. We consent to tell the State, they said, our ages, our birthplaces, our occupations, our matrimonial affairs, and the names and numbers of our children; but never on any consideration will we allow the State to ask us questions about our religion. There is an old hymn which begins with the line: “Ashamed to be a Christian?” and suggests that a good man, instead of keeping quiet about his religion, ought to be anxious to proclaim it whenever possible. I do not know whether the Englishman would have objected to proclaiming himself a Christian on the census-paper; but, undoubtedly, he was ashamed, for census purposes, to be an Anglican, or a Methodist, or a Plymouth Brother. To answer questions about his religious denomination would have been to surrender the last liberties of his soul. At the same time, realising that liberty was important to Englishmen, it was of little importance to Irishmen, he passed a law which compelled the Irishman to answer the questions which would have subverted English freedom. My English friends may be horrified to learn that as a child I suffered the ignominy of having to confess – through my father – my religion to the authorities of Dublin Castle. Yet in Belfast we were accustomed to boast of the liberties that we had won at the Battle of the Boyne – liberties for which, we gathered, our fathers had been fighting from time immemorial. It is all the stranger that nobody seems to have thought of leading a bloody rebellion against the religious census. It was taken every ten years and nobody, so far as I have discovered, was a penny the worse.

Since that time, how many violations of liberty we have seen in these islands! And the violations that did not matter have been resented no less than the violations that did. I remember the flushed fury of a Surrey landlady during the war when the sale of sugar was restricted and she learnt that she would have to present a coupon at the grocers to obtain her weekly share. “I’d rather go without,” she declared indignantly, and she set off at the earliest possible moment to obtain her ration-card. She was all for conscription, but how dare the State come between her and her sugar. “They used to say that England was a free country,” she would say gloomily, after the butcher had supplied her with a dismally small chunk of rationed meat, and, within a few minutes, she would launch into an attack on conscientious objectors. “Isn’t England their country as well as ours?” she would ask. “Why don’t they go out and fight for it?” Conscripts and conscientious objectors little knew what we who remained at so-called liberty had to endure. We were compelled to draw the curtains in our sitting-rooms at night. We were followed by coast-watchers along seaside cliffs who looked at us suspiciously, and insolently asked us if we had cameras. If we wanted a little more butter than the law allowed us, we had to smuggle it from a farmhouse, risking exposure and a fine if we were captured with the stuff in our possession. We had to beg our butchers for offal to supplement the meagre rations of food that was given to us in exchange for our coupons. Some of us had to stand naked before army doctors, like cattle in a market whom nobody wanted even as a gift. Liberty! Let me tell those young people, who believe it would be a violation of their liberty for the police to take their finger-prints, that there were days during the war when I would gladly have given my finger-prints for the leg of a wild rabbit.

At the present time, I am willing to give my finger-prints to any policeman who wants them. I have surrendered far more vital liberties than the liberty to keep my finger-prints a secret. Did not the War Office make a record even of the moles on my body? Does not the Foreign Office possess my passport photograph – not an ideal means of identification perhaps, but intended as such? Does not the Chancellor of the Exchequer know my income, and the County Council the horse-power and the colour of my car? Some public body even asked me a few years ago the number of rooms in my house. I cannot go to the United States without somebody’s asking me whether I am a bigamist.

If I go abroad and return to England, I am met by inquisitive men who turn over the contents of my bags in search of silk stockings and cocaine. Never before was such spying known in the history of civilised man. Wherever one goes one feels that one is being watched by an eye like the dreadful Masonic eye that never shuts on the signboard of some public houses. I have known children who were terrified of that eye, which might give even a nervous adult the feeling that he was a ticket-of-leave man with detectives following him. The State has become a huge detective-force, and we are all being followed. I sometimes feel like crying out to it: “For heaven’s sake, take my finger-prints if you want them but stop following me, and stop pestering me with questions.” Readily will I give my finger-prints to any Government that will give me in exchange the lost liberty to buy cigarettes when I need them, and to drink beer instead of tea during an afternoon walk in the country, or drink beer at tea time, but I want back my liberty. I do not, on the other hand, want the liberty to keep my finger-prints out of the hands of the police. If ever I commit a crime, I will see to it that there are no finger-prints left to show who did it.



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