My history hero: Clarence Willcock

Chosen by Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats

Clarence Harry Willcock MP, who refused to show his identity card to a policeman, 13 June 1951. (Photo by Walter Bellamy/Express/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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A member of the Liberal party, who stood as the party’s candidate in Barking at the 1945 and 1950 elections, Clarence Willcock was the last person in Britain to be prosecuted for refusing to produce an identity card. The Yorkshire-born dry-cleaning manager 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.

When did you first hear about Clarence Willcock?

Some years ago. The reason I was so captivated by him is that he’s such a wonderful example of an individual citizen standing up to the over-mighty state. Stopped while driving in Finchley, Willcock was ordered to produce his ID card at the nearest police station within 48 hours but refused. It might have been a mundane-sounding incident but from that flowed a legal case that in due course resulted in a change in the law.

What kind of person was Clarence Willcock?

He was a plucky and obstreperous individual, and moreover, one who was prepared to risk getting on the wrong side of the law over an issue that he regarded as a matter of principle, a matter of right and wrong. It was a wholly admirable stance, given the importance of the issue at stake.

What made Willcock a hero?

First and foremost, his courageous action in refusing to produce his ID card on request – and his determination to carry on his fight against what he perceived as an unjust law, despite being convicted and fined 10 shillings. Yes, he might have lost his appeal [Willcock v Muckle], but the lord chief justice, Lord Goddard, spoke out against the continued use of ID cards, observing that they “tend to make people resentful… of the police”. Within a few years, ID cards had indeed been scrapped.

Another reason for choosing him is that he’s such an unconventional hero: he wasn’t rich, he wasn’t powerful – and I think when we have a chance to celebrate heroism it’s important to celebrate the heroism of ordinary people too.

What was Willcock’s finest hour?

The instinctive, unrehearsed stand he took in December 1950, after being stopped by the police. One of the things that’s always struck me about Willcock is the dignified yet forceful way he went about making his protest. He understood that the need to have an identity card and the abuse of civil liberties all too often go hand in hand. I’ve always admired his understated, low-key, oh-so British response to the policeman who stopped him: “I am a Liberal and I’m against that sort of thing.”

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

Well, he was obviously quite an obstinate character, which isn’t necessarily an admirable quality in a person. But the fact is that society needs such people – and in my eyes, his greatness lies in his sheer bloodymindedness over such a keystone issue and his refusal to kowtow to the state.

Can you see any parallels between Willcock’s life and your own?

Not really, other than our shared belief in civil liberties and our opposition to ID cards. He was simply part of that long bolshie tradition of liberalism, which I’ve always admired, that keeps the powerful on their toes.

If you could meet Willcock, what would you ask him/her?

I’d congratulate him on the principled stand he took which resulted in a change in the law. I think he’d thoroughly approve of the coalition government’s decision to scrap Labour’s plans to introduce ID cards.

Nick Clegg was talking to York Membery.

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Nick Clegg is the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats. Elected MP for Sheffield Hallam in 2005, he became party leader in 2007. He and his wife Miriam, and three children, divide their time between their homes in Putney and Sheffield