Wednesday 14 April 2010

Public Identity

The issue of identity cards, once one of the flagship policies of our present marshmallow government, has rather sunk without trace, there but not there, if you take my meaning. Any sensible politician – and there are few of those in the Labour ranks – would have cast their eyes over the past history of identity cards in Britain; and the past history was anything but good.

Identity cards were introduced in the United Kingdom in September 1939. This was the second such scheme in British history, following a largely unsuccessful experiment during the First World War. Given the long British attachment to civil liberties the scheme was highly unpopular, though accepted in the light of the prevailing national emergency. It's possible to take a small measure of how the national identity scheme was received from remarks by the historian A J P Taylor in his English History, 1914-1945, where he describes the whole thing as an 'indignity' and talks of the Home Guard 'harassing' people for their cards.

After the war the government of Clement Atlee decided to continue the scheme in the face of the Cold War and the perceived Soviet threat, though it grew ever less popular. In the mind of the public it was more and more associated with bureaucratic interference and regulation, reflected, most particularly, in the 1949 Passport to Pimlico, one of the comedy movies made by the Ealing Studios in London.

Identity Cards also became the subject of a celebrated civil liberties case in 1950, when Clarence Henry Willcock, a member of the Liberal Party, refused to produce his after being stopped by the police. During his subsequent trail he argued that identity cards had no place in peace time, a defence rejected by the magistrate’s court. In his subsequent appeal, Willcock vs. Muckle, the judgment of the lower court was upheld, though in summing up Lord Goddard more or less accepted his defence;

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.

Protest reached Parliament, where the Conservative and Liberal peers voiced their anger over what they saw as 'Socialist card-indexing'. After the defeat of the Labour Government in the General Election of October 1951 the incoming Conservative administration of Winston Churchill was pledged to get rid of the scheme, “to set the people free”, in the words of one minister. This was a popular move, adopted against the wishes of the police and the security services, though the decision to repeal the 1939 legislation was, in significant part, driven by the need for economies. By 1952 national Registration was costing £500,000 per annum, a huge sum for the day, and required 1500 civil servants to administer it. Some things are best left in the dark.


  1. Nice to see you back. :-)

    It's just not part of a British tradition. Rightly or wrongly people feel it to be intrusive. The cost is cetainly an issue, especially in times like these, though the objectives have also been put under scrutiny, including the suggestion that it would act as a safeguard against potential terrorists.

  2. Ana, I think that argument has been falsely stamped as tradition, I agree with first comment and I think we are in 21 century and it is time to change some habit. It helps everyone and we do not have to go through this again
    In social welfare system, the political establishment need to have a good understanding of population's needs to spend the money where it is needed. If you have x and y with 5 different names and 10 different addresses on your non-connected gov system, then you spend too much money to take care of small problems. So your system comes up with more wearied taxation systems, higher education fees to cover it. The pro BRITISH TRADITION chaps live on benefit for generations and keep saying I do not want gov know anything about me. Like so we have more camera than the population but we talk about self declared civil library from an angle that no one but Britons can understand. The fact is in a welfare system there is not real civil libretti as such, is it?

  3. Thanks, Droshani. The thing is we have such an advanced notion of personal liberties and freedom in this country that most forms of state intrusion seem to conflict with 'tradition', wrongly perceived or not. But this scheme was abandoned because it was badly-conceived, expensive and unlikely to produce the ends desired.