c. Martin Limon, 2005

Harry Willcock And A Crisis Of Identity
(first published in Best of British Magazine, June 2006)
One of the most controversial political issues of recent times has been that of identity cards. Ever since the terrorist attacks on the USA on September 11th 2001 the UK government has sought ways to tighten security and plans are well advanced for the introduction of compulsory ID cards here. These, it is claimed, would aid the fight against global terrorism, provide proof of age and assist in the fight against crime and anti-social behaviour. Those who oppose identity cards cite, as some of their reasons, a loss of privacy, the possible inaccuracy of information held on a national database and the cost of such a scheme. In fact, the controversy surrounding ID cards is not new. In the early 1950s the prosecution of a Yorkshire Liberal, Harry Willcock, was to bring into question the legality of war-time identity cards and hasten their demise……

Writes Martin Limon

          In continental Europe identity cards have long been accepted as part of everyday life and eleven countries in the European Union now have some form of ID card. In the United Kingdom however more liberal traditions of freedom have meant that identity cards have been treated with greater suspicion and have only been accepted at times of dire national emergency. Britain's first brief flirtation with identity checks had been made during the First World War when, under the National Registration Act of 1915, local authorities had been required to compile registers of the adult population and issue 'certificates of registration'.

      This system lapsed but with the coming of the Second World War in September 1939 the Government believed that an identity card scheme was essential in view of the dislocation of the population (due to mass evacuation, for example), to maximise the efficiency of the war economy, to help the introduction of rationing and to give them accurate statistics about the population. Introducing the National Registration Bill into Parliament, Health Minister Walter Elliott suggested that the registration process would take about three weeks to implement and that it would assist the government in its wartime planning. The bill was rushed quickly through all its stages (though not without some dissent) and became law on the 5th September 1939. The Act set up a National Register containing details of all citizens (adults and children) who were then issued with National Identity Cards giving a registration number and details of their