Thursday February 21st, 1952, was the last day that people in Britain were required by law to carry a National Identity Card and be ready to produce it on demand.
On that day, Minister for Health, Harry Crookshank, announced to the House of Commons that National Identity Cards were to be scrapped. It would take some weeks for the law requiring them to be formally repealed, but no-one would need to carry their card from that day on.
It was a broadly popular move and one promised by Winston Churchill’s Conservative government soon after winning the 1951 general election. It was promoted as another way to “set the people free” after the restrictions and hardships endured throughout and following the Second World War.
Police and security services opposed scrapping identity cards, but many people opposed to them on principle celebrated the news by ripping up their cards or burning them. Others simply put them away in a drawer or cupboard.
The National Registration Act 1939 was one of several emergency measures introduced in Britain at the start of the war. It established a National Register of all British citizens which began operating on September 29th of that year. Everyone was required to carry their own “National Registration Identity Card” and be able to produce it on demand to a person in authority, or present it at a police station within 48 hours of that demand being made.
Every man, woman and child was required to carry an identity card, which contained information on their name, gender, age, address, occupation or profession, marital status and membership of Naval, Military or Air Force reserves or Auxiliary Forces, or of Civil Defence Services or Reserves. In a huge logistical operation carried out nationwide and involving 65,000 ‘enumerators’, everyone was required to fill out their National Registration forms on Friday September 29th.
On the following Sunday and Monday, enumerators visited every householder on their patch to collect the forms, check them and issue the appropriate National Identity Cards using the information provided. The main reasons for introducing the scheme were to maximise efficient use of manpower for the war effort, gain accurate and up-to-date population statistics, and as a pre-cursor to the introduction of rationing, which happened in January 1940.
Initially all the cards were a brown buff colour, but as the scheme evolved cards were issued in different colours to distinguish their holders. From 1943 adults had blue cards, government officials had green cards which also included a photograph, and those in the armed services had a separate type of ID card. Failure or refusal to produce a National Identity Card could have serious consequences, depending on the reason, including a spell behind bars.
When the war ended in 1945 most people expected the Identity Card scheme to end soon after, but the newly-elected Labour government under Clement Attlee decided to keep the scheme. The police found it useful and put pressure on politicians to keep it, but opposition began to grow. People who accepted it as a wartime necessity now saw it as an infringement of their civil liberties in peacetime.
One case which drew national attention was that of Clarence Harry Willcock, the last person in the UK to be prosecuted for refusing to produce an identity card. Active in Liberal politics and a former councillor and magistrate, he refused to produce his card when pulled over for speeding, or to take it to a police station within two days. He told the police officer: “I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing.”
When prosecuted for the offence he fought the case on principle, arguing that since the identity card scheme was introduced in a national state of emergency, it should have relapsed when the state ended. Although he was convicted and lost a subsequent appeal, the courts were both lenient and sympathetic to him. The magistrates granted him an absolute discharge – the least severe penalty available to them – and the appeal judge criticised the government in his ruling.
“This Act was passed for security purposes,” he said. “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… tends to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers, which is a most undesirable state of affairs.”
Old and faded National Identity Cards still turn up in long-forgotten drawers and bundles of old papers and are snapped up by collectors of wartime memorabilia.