Harry Willcock

Harry Willcock (1896-1952), campaigner against identity cards, was born on 23 January 1896 in Alverthorpe, Yorkshire, the son of Harry Cruickshank, a native of Leeds who worked in the textile trade, and Ella Brooke, whose family ran a wholesale tailoring business.

In 1944 Willcock moved to the London area, where he was the manager of a dry-cleaning firm. Prominent in Barnet Liberal Association, and president of the Essex County Liberal Federation, Willcock stood unsuccessfully for election to parliament as a Liberal for Barking in 1945 and 1950.

Willcock's significance derives from an incident on 7 December 1950 when he was stopped for speeding in North Finchley, and asked by Police Constable Harold Muckle to show his identity card. Willcock refused, reportedly stating, "I am a Liberal, and I am against this sort of thing." He also refused to accept the form requesting production of the card at a police station within two days. After failing to produce his identity card within the prescribed period, he was summonsed to appear before Hornsey magistrates.

Willcock was convicted for speeding and for failing to produce his identity card. He had argued that the legislation governing the identity card scheme, the National Registration Act of 1939, no longer had effect, because "the emergency" for which this had been passed shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War had now ended. The magistrates disagreed with this interpretation of the law but gave Willcock an absolute discharge and encouragement to appeal.

The High Court heard the case of Willcock v Muckle in June 1951. Willcock's defence team was made up of prominent Liberals who offered their services for free. The attorney-general appeared as an amicus curiae and argued that parliament had legislated in 1939 to deal with several manifestations of the same emergency, or even several overlapping emergencies. The High Court agreed, although with two dissenting opinions. On the wider issue of whether a scheme introduced as an emergency wartime measure should now be used for routine administrative purposes Lord Chief Justice Goddard was damning.

Willcock became something of a minor celebrity as a result of the case. He formed the Freedom Defence Association, destroying his identity card in front of the National Liberal Club for the benefit of the press, a stunt later repeated outside Parliament by the British Housewives' League. A rally was held in Hyde Park and when the incoming Conservative government finally abolished identity cards, in 1952, Willcock received hundreds through the post to auction for charity.

The Liberal Party's attitude to this campaign was surprisingly half-hearted and the issue did not feature at all in the party's manifesto at the general election of 1951. Willcock was identified with the die-hard free trade wing of the party and this may have discouraged the Liberal leadership from offering him their wholehearted backing.

Willcock collapsed and died of a heart attack while addressing a meeting of the Eighty Club at the Reform Club in London on 12 December 1952. His campaign certainly stemmed the flow of prosecutions under the 1939 act - from 235 in 1951 to just three in 1952 - but whether it led to the identity card scheme being discontinued is open to question. Nevertheless Willcock is commemorated by a plaque in the National Liberal Club that records that, when he died, "the last word on his lips was 'freedom'".