Chris Huhne meet Clarence Willcock: speeding Liberals against ID cards

Card declined, a book about ID cards in Britain by SA MathiesonChris Huhne will today be sentenced for perverting the course of justice, as will his then-wife Vicky Pryce, after she agreed to accept his speeding points a decade ago.

He is part of a Liberal tradition of both being arrested for speeding and helping to abolish ID cards. The instigator of this is someone who (I think) was quoted yesterday at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in dramatic circumstances.

In December 1950, Clarence Willcock, twice an unsuccessful Liberal candidate for Parliament, was stopped for speeding in Finchley. The police constable asked to see his ID card: the wartime identity card scheme had been retained and expanded by the post-war Labour government. Mr Willcock replied: “I am a Liberal, and I am against this sort of thing.”

Yesterday, Jo Shaw resigned from the Liberal Democrats over the party’s support for secret courts, saying: “I am a liberal and I am a democrat and we are against this sort of thing.” It would be surprising if she wasn’t remembering him.

Mr Willcock took his case through the legal system, eventually reaching the High Court – as you can read in Card declined, my new book on the history of identity cards in Britain:

On 7 December 1950, Clarence Harry Willcock was stopped by police constable Harold Muckle for speeding on Ballard’s Lane in north Finchley. While clearly not a serious crime, PC Muckle nevertheless asked for Mr Willcock’s identity card. He refused, with the splendid response: “I am a Liberal, and I am against this sort of thing.”

Mr Willcock was born in Alverthorpe in Yorkshire in 1896 with identity issues: his parents were unmarried, and he took his surname from the widow who adopted him. He served in the First World War in Britain, then married and worked as a salesman in Yorkshire. He served as an independent councillor, but for 20 years was also secretary of the Liberal Association, and also served as a magistrate. In 1944, he moved to London, where he stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate for the Barking constituency of Parliament in 1945 and 1950.

When stopped by the police, Mr Willcock decided to take a stand. Having refused to produce his card, he also threw to the ground the form requiring him to produce a card within two days at a police station. He argued to the magistrate that the emergency legislation introducing identity cards was redundant, as the emergency had passed. The magistrates convicted him, but gave him an absolute discharge and encouraged him to appeal.

He took the case to the High Court the following June, where Willcock v Muckle was argued by a crack Liberal legal team, working for free. The attorney-general appeared as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) to argue that “the emergency” used to justify the National Registration Act 1939 was not actually the Second World War, but several overlapping emergencies, and the fact that some emergency powers had been withdrawn did not affect the continuation of other such powers. This can be seen as a useful lesson for anyone hoping to oppose a government introducing tough new powers in reaction to a one-off event: when the event is over, don’t assume the powers will go with it.

Clarence Willcock lost – in a blaze of glory. The High Court’s judgement included two dissenting opinions. Lord Chief Justice Goddard said: “This Act was passed for security purposes: it was never passed for the purposes for which it is now apparently being used. To use Acts of Parliament passed for particular purposes in wartime when the war is a thing of the past – except for the technicality that a state of war exists – tends to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers which is a most undesirable state of affairs.” Mr Willcock continued the fight, forming the Freedom Defence Association, destroying his identity card in front of the National Liberal Club as a press stunt, and holding a rally in Hyde Park.

He died of a heart attack on 12 December 1952 after collapsing while speaking at the Reform Club in London, and is commemorated by a plaque in the National Liberal Club which says that “the last word on his lips was freedom”. And by the time he died, he had succeeded; the National Registration Act was repealed by Parliament on 22 May 1952. In 2007, when standing as leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Nick Clegg named Mr Willcock as one of his two political heroes, the other being Vaclav Havel. “He showed that one man willing to take a stand can change the system,” wrote Mr Clegg.

While Clarence Willcock’s speeding led him into a legal fight that helped abolish ID cards, Chris Huhne’s  contribution came before the court case that seems likely to have ended his political career. He was part of the Liberal Democrat team that negotiated with both Conservative and Labour teams immediately after the 2010 election. Talks with the Tories went well, but this wasn’t the case with Labour…

When discussing identity cards with Chris Huhne, leader of the Commons Harriet Harman – described by [David] Laws as wearing a smile “that was simultaneously pained, patronising and sceptical” – said: “Look, Alan Johnson really needs to talk this through with whoever the Lib Dem home affairs spokesperson is.” “That would be Chris,” replied Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem MP leading the negotiations.

And following this ice-frosted meeting, the rest is history, as are ID cards for Britons. Although, given we’ve had three schemes passed, then repealed, by Parliament in three-quarters of a century, it’s worth adding “for now” to the last sentence.

If you’d like to read the story of ID cards – a British battle for liberty with liberal lashings of farce – then Card declined is available here.

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