Rear Window: Identity cards: The man who said 'mind your own business'

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The Independent Online
IN THE CHRONICLE of the struggle for liberty in Britain, the name of Clarence Henry Willcock does not rank high. He did not defy a despotic king or get deported for forming a trade union. All he wanted to do was to mind his own business - and found himself brought before the highest judges in the land for his presumption.

Mr Willcock's court appearance caused a brief stir and was then forgotten. Even the cause is largely forgotten. On the outbreak of war in September 1939, legislation was rushed through Parliament requiring citizens to carry registration cards - in effect, identity cards. Like ration books, the cards persisted through the austerity years of the post-war Labour government and into the 1950s. Now the Government is cautiously moving towards their reintroduction.

The facts of Mr Willcock's case were these. On 7 December 1950, he was driving down Ballards Lane in Finchley, north London, and was pulled over by Police Constable Harold Muckle.

The court records contain no evidence that Mr Willcock, the 54-year-old manager of a dry cleaning firm, could be suspected of committing an offence. PC Muckle ordered the motorist to produce his identity card none the less. Mr Willcock refused. PC Muckle gave Mr Willcock a form requiring him to appear at a police station with his identity card within 48 hours. Mr Willcock threw it on to the pavement and said: 'I will not accept this form.'

Hornsey magistrates convicted him. Mr Willcock appealed, and his case was thought so important that the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard, and six other judges attended, along with the Attorney General.

Mr Willcock lost again. But the Court of Appeal made its views clear, not only by confirming the absolute discharge given by Hornsey magistrates, but also by ordering the government to pay Mr Willcock's costs. Lord Goddard, whom nobody ever accused of being a pinko civil libertarian, said: 'The police now, as a matter of routine, demand the production of national registration cards whenever they stop or interrogate a motorist for whatever cause.

'To demand production of the card from all and sundry, for instance from a woman who has left her car outside a shop longer than she should . . . is wholly unreasonable. To use Acts of Parliament passed for particular purposes in wartime when the war is a thing of the past tends to turn law-abiding citizens into lawbreakers, which is a most undesirable state of affairs.'

Lord Goddard went on to point out that 'in this country we have always prided ourselves on the good feeling which exists between the police and the public'. Random demands to see identity cards 'tend to make people resentful of the acts of the police and inclines them to obstruct the police instead of assisting them'.

The following year, Winston Churchill's Conservative government abolished the cards. There were no cries that the fight against crime was being endangered. 'They just went as part of Churchill's destruction of wartime regulations and controls,' said Anthony Sheldon, author of Churchill's Indian Summer. 'There was a great feeling that we needed to get away from the war and austerity.'

Mr Willcock stood unsuccessfully as the Liberal candidate in Barking, Essex, in two elections before disappearing into genteel obscurity.

The card against which he was protesting was just a dog- eared piece of cardboard. Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties) said that a modern ID card would be a very different thing: probably a machine readable and information-packed strip which any police, DSS, immigration, inland revenue or customs officer who wanted to find out about your life could swipe.

With tens of millions of cards in circulation, the determined criminal could easily find a false identity, the pressure group argues. 'The real victims would be the general public who would find they could be arrested on the whim of a police officer and held until they could prove who they were,' said John Wadham, Liberty's legal officer. 'Clarence Willcock set an example which others may soon have to follow.'

(Photograph omitted)

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