ID cards abolished

By Ian Dunt

But don't get too excited - that was half a century ago. This is the story of how Britain already defeated the identity programme.

On this day, in 1952, Britain rid itself of its first experiment in identity cards. Today, that experiment is beginning again, with airport workers and foreigners being targeted as the first recipients of new biometric cards. Civil liberties activists detest them. Government officials say they are necessary to combat, well, basically everything, from terrorism to immigration to identity fraud. But if they work so well, why did we ever get rid of them?

To answer that question you have to ask why they were introduced. The second world war had only been going on for a year when the government decided to impose an identity system on Britain. But once the decision was made, events moved quickly. The reasons were obvious. With spies across Europe, the state needed to know who everyone was. If there was dissent, it wasn't well documented. The National Registration Act 1939 received Royal Assent on September 5th.

The cards Britons were to carry held the owners name, sex, age, occupation, residence, marital status and profession, but no photograph. Section 6, sub-section 4, of the Act stated: "A constable in uniform, or any person authorised for the purpose under the said regulations, may require a person who under the regulations is for the time being responsible for the custody of an identity card, to produce the card to him or, if the person so required fails to produce it when the requirement is made, to produce it within such time, to such person and at such place as may be prescribed."

There was debate within parliament, even with the Nazi threat towering over Britain's very existence. In the Act's second reading, John Tinker MP said: "We do not want to be stopped in the street by any person anywhere and to be forced to produce a card.

"If that kind of thing begins, we shall be afraid of people meeting us and asking for our cards. One thing that we do respect in this country is our freedom from being challenged on every occasion to produce something to prove that we are certain persons."

The cards lasted well beyond the end of the war in 1945. Clement Atlee's pivotal Labour administration came and went. And then, in 1951, as is so often the case with these things, one man decided he had had enough.

A driver was stopped in connection with a motoring offence and when asked to produce his card, promptly refused. He was subsequently asked again, to which he subsequently refused again. The case of Willcock v Muckle went to court.

Dr Edward Higgs, a lecturer in the University of Essex, says this act of rebellion neatly summarised the disgruntlement of a country still living under wartime restrictions six years after the war had ended.

"There was a sort of general level of discontent after the war," he says. "But ID cards linked up with the discontent over rationing as part of the reaction against austerity Britain.

"People were hacked off at having to show a pass to policemen when asked. There wasn't much lying down in the streets or that sort of thing, but, yes, people were irritated."

So was Lord Chief Justice Goddard of the King's Bench Division. When the case went to appeal, he launched a blistering attack on the way police had adopted the law to suit their own ends.
"Because the police have powers, it does not follow that they ought to exercise them on all occasions as a matter of routine," he said.

"From what we have been told it is obvious that the police now, as a matter of routine, demand the production of a national registration card whenever they stop or interrogate a motorist for whatever cause. This Act was passed for security purposes: it was never intended for the purposes for which it is now being used."

It was a short step from there to the Commons. By November 1952, Lord Goddard was echoing his comments in parliament.

"It is obvious," he said, "that the police now, as a matter of routine, demand the production of national registration indemnity cards whenever they stop or interrogate a motorist for whatever cause.

"Of course, if they are looking for a stolen car or have reason to believe that a particular motorist is engaged in committing a crime, that is one thing, but to demand a national registration identity card from all and sundry, for instance, from a lady who may leave her car outside a shop longer than she should, or some trivial matter of that sort, is wholly unreasonable."

The similarities to today, with local authorities using counter-terrorism powers to put families under surveillance to see if they are in the correct school catchment area, are obvious. Powers tend to seep.

"When they lost, the police were very upset," says Dr Angela Sasse, a lecturer in computer science at University College London and a former specialist advisor to the Home Office committee's inquiry into ID cards.

"A Times article said the cards were for wartime, that they even had a place so long as there was rationing, but that those arguments were now gone. The only point by that stage was for authorities to follow people around, to track people's movement."

But the British political establishment never entirely supported their abolition. We're used to hearing home secretaries and prime minister endlessly advance their merits, but the concept of ID cards never truly went away. In 1989 there was a debate in the Commons on a bill introducing them. In 1995, John Major - then prime minister - issued a consultation paper on the subject, but buckled after he saw the extent of Cabinet opposition. Europe, for what it is worth, has identity cards, although their form differs depending on the country.

But with the advent of advanced biometric technology and the push for a centralised identity database, the current ID card programme is fundamentally different to what came before.

"The national ID register they're proposing is a big jump from what there was previously to now," Sasse says.

Higgs agrees. "They've always come up during wartime," he points out. "There was a sort of registration system in the first world war. Then the cards in the second world war. This system is quite unusual in that there isn't a war.

"The other difference is that the card will contain biometrics. That's totally different. In the second world war, they didn't even have a photo."

What does the story of Britain's first relationship with ID cards tell us? There are two important lessons. Firstly, the view that police will begin to routinely use powers given to them for very specific purposes for areas we hadn't intended is substantially vindicated by the historical data.

Secondly, there appears to be something uniquely unnatural about the combination of identity cards and Great Britain. The continent never took such great offence at the imposition of identity cards, nor mandatory local authority registration. Even today, Europeans visiting the UK struggle to understand the depth of passion aroused by the mere idea. But in Britain, where the concept of privacy is so pervasive and innate as a national characteristic, the cards entail something else entirely. If ID cards are finally introduced, the government will find considerable opposition, even rebellion. The question is, will it make any difference?


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.