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How ID cards were abolished in post WWII Britain

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:40 pm on 1 April, 2006.
Categories privacy and surveillance.
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Graham Stewart, writing in the Times, tells the story of how Britain’s wartime ID cards, whose use extended into peacetime, were eventually abolished:

The 1945 Labour Government decided that a scheme introduced as a temporary emergency measure on the outbreak of war in 1939 should continue in peacetime. After all, ID cards assisted the great task of national bookkeeping. Long after the threat diminished from strangers with Mitteleuropean accents asking the way to the nearest deep water port, ID cards still facilitated the efficient administration of food rationing. They were also required when applying for new passports.

However, Clement Attlee’s bureaucratic citadel found itself besieged by a small band of individuals defending their right to be awkward. At the forefront was the British Housewives’ League. A delegation assembled outside Parliament in April 1951 to burn their ID cards. A downpour risked turning their protest into a damp squib, although Mrs Palmer of Sidcup managed to destroy her card by setting fire to it in a coffee tin, while Mrs Irene Lovelock of Canterbury was — as The Times reported — “partly successful with a frying-pan”.

These redoubtable women were not the sort to welcome comparison with Gandhi, but their passive disobedience campaign was gathering momentum. The previous year, Clarence Harry Willcock refused a police officer’s demands to stop his car and show his ID card with the explanation: “I am a Liberal.”

He was duly arrested. But his case reached the High Court in June, 1951. Although the conviction was upheld, the Lord Chief Justice cautioned that the extension of legislation beyond its original limited intention “tended to turn law-abiding subjects into law breakers, which was most undesirable, and the good relations between the police and the public would be likely to suffer”.

Willcock became, briefly, a national figure — the little man standing up against an overweening and officious bureaucracy. On a mandate to “set the people free”, the Tories won the ensuing general election and promptly scrapped the accursed identity card.

Now, again we have a small band of individuals campaigning against the new identity cards scheme, in the form of the No2ID campaign, and a pledge from the Tories’ shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, to scrap the bill. Could history be about to repeat itself?

The fact that Davis voted with the government when the Bill returned to the House of Commons for final approval does make one wonder at his sincerity.

Anyway, if history is to repeat itself, it’ll require the next aim of the No2ID campaign to be realised, namely “to make running on a platform that supports (in fact, that does not actively oppose) compulsory registration, a National Identity Register and ID cards political suicide for any party or politician going into any sort of election”.

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