During both the first and second world wars the government introduced compulsory ID cards as part of their emergency measures. ID cards were withdrawn within a year of the end of the First World War; however it was not until seven years after the Second World War that ID cards were finally withdrawn. Clarence Willcock was instrumental in this process; his refusal to show his ID card when stopped by the police in North London raised questions about their use in peacetime Britain and contributed to the withdrawal of the cards in 1952.
The coming of the Second World War provided the impetus for the reintroduction of ID cards and a national register as a temporary emergency measure.
ID cards and the national register were bought in under the National Registration Act 1939. Registration of the whole population was held on September 29th 1939 and heads of households had to provide information on each member of the household, including children.
The Register comprised ‘all persons in the United Kingdom at the appointed time’ and ‘all persons entering or born in the United Kingdom after that time’. A Schedule to the Act listed ‘matters with respect to which particulars are to be entered in Register’.
4. Occupation, profession, trade or employment,
6. Condition as to marriage,
7. Membership of Naval, Military or Air Force Reserves or Auxiliary Forces or of Civil Defence Services or Reserves.
The introduction of the ID card and register bought with it a whole new range of criminal offences. Section 6, Sub-section 4, of the Act stated:
‘A constable in uniform, or any person authorised for the purpose under the said regulations, may require a person who under the regulations is for the time being responsible for the custody of an Identity card, to produce the card to him or, if the person so required fails to produce it when the requirement is made, to produce it within such time, to such person and at such place as may be prescribed’.
Offences under the Act included giving false information, impersonation, forgery of an identity card, and unauthorised disclosure of information. For these offences, maximum penalties on summary conviction were a £50 fine and/ or three months in prison, and on conviction on indictment a £100 fine and/or two years in prison. It was also an offence to fail to comply with any other requirement duly made under the Act, or with any regulation made under it, and the maximum penalty was a £5 fine or one month in prison or both. The Act applied to the whole of the United Kingdom and was to remain in force until a date which ‘His Majesty may be Order in Council declare to be the date on which the emergency that was the occasion of the passing of this Act came to an end’.
Three major reasons were given for the introduction of ID cards and a national register:
- The need for complete manpower control and planning, in order to maximise the efficiency of the war economy.
- The introduction of rationing required a system of standardised registration. Rationing was introduced from January 1940.
- To have up to date information and statistics about the population, the last census had taken place in 1931.
In addition to the rationing of food and clothes ID cards were required for all post office transactions. By the time they were withdrawn in 1952, 38 government departments used the ID card and the national register. It was the police who consistently used the card in their day-to-day dealings with the public; a demand to see an ID card became a routine event. C.H. Rolph, an ex-policeman, said:
“The police, who had by now got used to the exhilarating new belief that they could get anyone’s name and address for the asking, went on calling for their production with increasing frequency. If you picked up a fountain pen in the street and handed it to a constable, he would ask to see your identity card in order that he might record your name as that of an honest citizen. You seldom carried it, and this meant that he had to give you a little pencilled slip requiring you to produce it at a police station within two days”
Each year, Parliament passed an Emergency Laws (Transitional Provisions) Act, continuing the effect of selected wartime laws, in 1947 when the registration system came up for renewal opposition was evident in parliament. During the debate W S Morrison, a conservative MP, said:
“Now that more than two years have passed since the end of the war, we ought seriously to consider whether the time is not overdue to get rid of what was an innovation introduced in order to meet a temporary set of conditions. There is no doubt that they are troublesome documents to some people. They frequently get lost, involving the owner in difficulties of one kind or another simply because he has not got a certain piece of paper. Law-abiding citizens who live in one community are particularly prone to lose them because they are known by all their neighbours and do not carry the cards. The dishonest man – the spiv, as he has been called – is generally possessed, I am told, of five or six different identity cards which he produces at his pleasure to meet the changing exigencies of his adventurous career. So in the detection and prevention of crime no case can be made out for the identity card. “
And later in the debate, Morrison went on:
“The argument advanced on second reading – I conceive it to be the main argument for the retention of these troublesome documents – was that as long as rationing persists they are necessary. I do not believe it. We were told in the House the other day that there are 20, 000 deserters still at large. How have these 20, 000 persons contrived to equip themselves with food and clothing? Ex hypothesis they cannot be possessed of valid honest identity cards, but that has not prevented them from sustaining themselves with food and clothing themselves with raiment without these documents. Therefore, as a deterrent to the evasion of the rationing arrangements the case is proved that they are of little or, at the best, of speculative value.”
Although this attack did not succeed in getting the system abolished it did draw a denunciation of identity cards from the Government’s spokesman, Aneurin Bevan:
“I believe that the requirement of an internal passport is more objectionable than an external passport, and that citizens ought to be allowed to move about freely without running the risk of being accosted by a policeman or anyone else, and asked to produce proof of identity.”
On the 7th December 1950, Clarence Willcock – the manager of a dry cleaning service – was stopped whilst driving down Ballards Lane in Finchley: some accounts say he was speeding, some that he was driving ‘erratically’. He was prosecuted for speeding. The police officer, PC Harold Muckle, demanded to see Willcock’s ID card. Willcock refused to show PC Muckle his card and is quoted as saying “I am a liberal, and I am against this sort of thing.” Willcock was presented with a form to produce his card at a police station within two days; he refused to accept this too and was subsequently summonsed to appear at Hornsey Magistrates Court (now Hornsey Coroners Court) and charged under Section 6 sub section 4 of the act.
In the magistrates court Willcock argued that the ’emergency’ legislation introducing ID cards was now redundant because the ’emergency’ was now clearly at an end. His counsel urged the magistrate to “say with pleasure and with pride that we need not be governed with restrictive rules any longer.”
The magistrate, Lieutenant Colonel WE Pringle, found Willcock guilty of not producing his ID card and of speeding; Willcock was fined 30 shillings and given an absolute discharge. Pringle disagreed with Willcock’s interpretation of the law but encouraged him to appeal.
In June 1951 the appeal went to the high court and was heard by seven high court judges including the Chief Justice Lord Goddard (later to become infamous for hanging Derek Bentley) and the Master of the Rolls. Willcock’s defence team comprised of several leading liberals of the time including AP Marshall KC, Emrys Roberts MP and Basil Widoger who offered their services pro bono.
The Attorney General, Sir Frank Soskice, appeared as amicus curiae and argued that Parliament had legislated in 1939 to deal with several manifestations of the same emergency, or even several overlapping emergencies, and a declaration that ‘the emergency’ had ended in relation to one piece of legislation did not affect the continuance of other emergency powers. The High Court agreed and Willcock’s conviction was upheld. Lord Goddard was damning of the legislation however, in his summing up he said:
“Because the police have powers, it does not follow that they ought to exercise them on all occasions as a matter of routine. From what we have been told it is obvious that the police now, as a matter of routine, demand the production of national registration indemnity cards whenever they stop or interrogate a motorist for whatever cause. Of course, if they are looking for a stolen car or have reason to believe that a particular motorist is engaged in committing a crime, that is one thing, but to demand a national registration identity card from all and sundry, for instance, from a lady who may leave her car outside a shop longer than she should, or some trivial matter of that sort, is wholly unreasonable. This Act was passed for security purposes, and not for the purposes for which, apparently, it is now sought to be used. To use Acts of Parliament, passed for particular purposes during war, in times when the war is past, except that technically a state of war exists, tends to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers, which is a most undesirable state of affairs. Further, in this country we have always prided ourselves on the good feeling that exists between the police and the public and such action tends to make the people resentful of the acts of the police and inclines them to obstruct the police instead of to assist them… They ought not to use a Security Act, which was passed for a particular purpose, as they have done in this case. For these reasons, although the court dismisses the appeal, it gives no costs against the appellant.”
The case gave Willcock a public profile that he used to start a campaign against ID cards. He formed the Freedom Defence Association which was launched, outside the National Liberal Club, where he ceremonially destroyed his ID card. There was a well attended public meeting in Hyde Park in August 1951 to launch a petition to parliament to withdraw the 68 ’emergency’ measure that had remained on the statute books since the end of the war. The campaign did not develop and the withdrawal of ID cards did not appear in the Liberal party manifesto for the 1952 election. There is, however, a record of four members of the British Housewives Association staging a card burning protest outside parliament in April 1951, though the protest was primarily against the continuation of rationing. Apparently due to high winds and rain only one of the cards was burnt.
On the 21st February 1952 the Secretary of State for health, H Crookshank, announced that the ID cards and the national register were to be withdrawn.
The reason Crookshank gave for their withdrawal was a financial one; the government would save £1 million. It’s doubtful whether the ID card scheme would have remained if the Labour party has succeeded in the 1951 election, in 1944 while the war was still on, the Registrar General, Sir Ernest Holderness, had said he did “not believe that public opinion would stand for the retention of national registration in it’s present form.” He knew that as rationing was phased out any public support for the ID card would dwindle.
The Willcock case did have an effect on police behaviour. Statistics are not available for the war time period but in 1949, 521 people were convicted of offences against the national registration act. In 1950, 470 (409 men, 61 women) were charged, 436 were convicted, 19 cases were otherwise disposed of, and 15 were dismissed. In 1951, 273 (232 men, 41 women) were charged, 235 were convicted, 16 otherwise disposed of, and 22 dismissed. In 1952 only 8 people were charged, of whom 3 were convicted.
This account is an excerpt from a longer text (originally given as a talk by David King at the Radical History Network of North East London, and later published by past tense as a pamphlet). The text can be read here.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online