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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
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Papers!

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Most people will not have heard of Clarence Harry Willcock, an unsung hero of British democracy. A dry-cleaning manager, and a Liberal of the old school, he was the last person in Britain to be prosecuted for refusing to produce an identity card. He was prosecuted under the National Registration Act of 1939 and fined. However, he subsequently appealed against his conviction, and the case, which became a cause célèbre, influenced Winston Churchill’s decision to scrap ID cards.

In 1950 he was stopped by a policeman who demanded to see his ID. He refused, telling him simply, “I am against this sort of thing.”, an act of resistance which inspired a movement, as soon after, the British Housewives’ League took to Parliament to set fire to their ID cards.

Mr Willcock was prosecuted and the case reached the High Court in 1951, where he was given an absolute discharge for his refusal to show his ID. He would be the last person to be prosecuted under the National Registration Act. In the judgment, Lord Chief Justice Goddard said the 1939 Act was “never passed for the purposes for which it is now apparently being used” and that using the law in this way “tends to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers as such action tends to make the people resentful of the acts of the police.”

I still have the card that was issued to me, containing only name, address, and date of birth, and largely intended for use in evacuations and rationing. Given the situation during the war it was certainly understandable that such a measure was necessary, but once victory had been achieved there was no excuse for continuing with the cards. Incidentally, as even allied prisoners in German POW camps were able to forge documents capable of fooling the Gestapo, it is certain that the simple cards we had could have been faked very easily.

What this proves is emergency measures tend to extend in duration and purpose, often to the disadvantage of citizens. in the wake of 9/11, Prime Minister Tony Blair told us we couldn’t possibly fight terrorism without them, but Boris Johnson vociferously opposed the idea, noting the inevitability of mission creep, saying in 2004 that if he was asked to show his ID, he would physically eat it.

Thankfully the campaign run by NO2ID was successful, and the idea was dropped, yet those who love the idea are still trying to have the cards adopted, the current Covid emergency giving them the perfect opportunity to introduce them via the back door, starting with vaccine passports, which we can be sure would soon be extended into other areas, such as eligibility for benefits, or even age related access to the local pub.

We fought the Second World War partly so that, unlike much of the world, our citizens would not be confronted with the demand “Papers”, while going about their lives. We can be sure that those with the “put that light out” mentality of Warden Hodges of Dad’s Army fame, would take a delight in harassing ordinary people, backed by the force of the law. Those very many people who do not possess smartphones, or a mastery of computer technology, would also find themselves in the position of being second class citizens, regarded with suspicion, and even sanctioned, for not showing the proofs demanded by petty officials.

If the authoritarian instincts of the bureaucrats are allowed to prevail we risk all those liberties for which so many died, as we can be sure that the presumption of innocence would be undermined. I recall an advertisement in support of credit cards from a few years back in which an attractive girl in a bikini walked down the street with only such a card on her person. I also expect to be able to walk down the road (thankfully not in a bikini!) with no documents should I so choose. One thing of which we can be sure is that respect for the police would be undermined, as the British would not take kindly to being forced to produce proof of their identity, while those workers charged with checking such proofs would be placed in an invidious position.

Boris must wake up, and reject all proposals which would lead to this slippery slope to an authoritarian regime in Britain. Modern technology would ensure that, once the principle of such items as vaccine passports were accepted, they would swiftly evolve into a national ID system. Mr Willcock’s fight against the paper ID cards would have been in vain, as Orwell’s Big Brother state’s use of IT would make them appear benign in comparison.

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