Churchill rejected ID cards and so should Howard

He seems driven by the fear of being on the wrong side of public opinion

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On 7 December 1950, Clarence Willcock, a dry cleaner from north London, was driving his car before being stopped by a policeman, Harold Muckle, who ordered him to show his identity card. He refused. The case Willcock v Muckle ended up in the High Court the following year, with Lord Chief Justice Goddard saying that the continuation of ID cards was an annoyance to the public "and tended to turn law-abiding subjects into law-breakers". Mr Willcock was sent on his way.

On 7 December 1950, Clarence Willcock, a dry cleaner from north London, was driving his car before being stopped by a policeman, Harold Muckle, who ordered him to show his identity card. He refused. The case Willcock v Muckle ended up in the High Court the following year, with Lord Chief Justice Goddard saying that the continuation of ID cards was an annoyance to the public "and tended to turn law-abiding subjects into law-breakers". Mr Willcock was sent on his way.

Yesterday I bought a 2005 House of Commons diary which contains a nugget of anniversary information for every day of the year. At the bottom of the column for Monday 21 February it says: "Identity cards abolished in Britain, 1952". The Tories, under Churchill, had been elected to replace the Attlee government just four months earlier on a programme to "set the people free". Mr Willcock became a national hero and the final inspiration for the Tory view that ID cards had no place in their philosophy.

Churchill's government recognised that their abolition, along with that of rationing, was part of the symbolic transition from the command and control of the people necessitated by the exigencies of war. Their demise signalled the release of the people from the strictures of the state. So it seems fantastic that, nearly 53 years later it should be the Tory party that looks like enabling another Labour government to restore ID cards.

But this is the one session of Parliament, destined to be truncated in the event of a 5 May election, where the Opposition can veto the legislation. The question is whether or not Michael Howard has avoided or fallen into Labour's trap. He has decided he would rather go against the natural instincts of his party because of the fear that Labour would accuse him of blocking their bill. He is also hobbled by his past when, as Home Secretary decade ago, he brought forward his own ID card proposal which was promptly rejected by his own side.

When Mr Howard spoke during the debate on the address three weeks ago he did not allow the words "identity cards" to pass his lips. And in the Tories' alternative Queen's Speech, there was no mention of ID cards either. In the event it seems that he was simply buying time before settling the internal debate within the Shadow Cabinet and among backbenchers. It is known that David Davis, the shadow home affairs spokesman, has long had reservations about the principle of ID cards, and made the case for opposition at second reading. Rumour has it that it was actually John Redwood rather than Tim Yeo who supported Mr Davis in the crucial Shadow Cabinet meeting earlier this week. Mr Davis at least probably also recognises that public opinion is fickle and liable to change dramatically once the full implications for individuals become more widely known. Though it will be embarrassing for Mr Davis when he stands up in the Commons debate next week, his personal opposition may eventually turn out to be a considerable asset to his long-term political ambitions.

Mr Howard, however, is not driven only by the immediate concern of the forthcoming election. He seems to be driven by the fear of being on the wrong side of public opinion that, at the moment is heavily in favour of ID cards. It has probably not helped rational discussion either, at the highest levels of the Tory party that, in his interview with his biographer, David Blunkett heaped praise upon Michael Howard's tenure at the Home Office and contrasted it with his criticisms of Mr Howard's successor, Jack Straw.

Flattery from political opponents can be a dangerous thing. Mr Howard is in danger of enjoying Mr Blunkett's backhanded compliments rather too much. ID cards are encouraging Mr Howard to be at ease with his past, thereby reinforcing the image from which he needs to escape. When he became leader, a year ago, he seemed happy to want to escape from his past, with a series of "I believe" advertisements setting out his new credo of "I believe the people should be big and the state should be small". This gave him the chance to lose his previous baggage and should surely have led him naturally to renounce his previous hankering for ID cards.

The biggest pragmatic case for Tories backing the legislation comes down to a simple fear that the Government will make capital out of the opposition being on the wrong side of current public opinion. But the idea that more voters might have turned to Labour had the Tories opposed ID cards seems risible. ID cards will not feature as an issue at this election, but they could certainly have been used by the Tories in their more general campaign against the increasingly meddlesome "nanny state" attitude. By the following election in 2009-10, the Tories will have dumped this policy, but in the meantime Mr Howard has sacrificed a great Tory principle. Churchill and Mr Willcock will be turning in their graves.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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