Willcock was born in Alverthorpe, Wakefield, Yorkshire, the illegitimate son of Harry Cruickshank, a native of Leeds who worked in the textile trade, and Ella Brooke, whose family ran a wholesale tailoring business. He was subsequently adopted by a widow, Mary Willcock, whose surname he adopted. During World War I he served with the Northumberland Fusiliers, but was not sent overseas.
He was active in Liberal politics, and stood for Parliament as the Liberal candidate in Barking in 1945 and 1950, coming last in both contests. He had also been a councillor and magistrate in Horsforth, Leeds. At the time of the events which gave rise to Willcock v. Muckle, he was the manager of a successful dry cleaning firm in London.
Willcock v. Muckle
Compulsory identity cards had been re-introduced during World War II under the National Registration Act 1939. After the war ended in 1945, the Labour government of Clement Attlee decided to continue the scheme.
On 7 December 1950, Willcock was stopped for speeding on Ballard's Lane, North Finchley, London. Police Constable Harold Muckle asked him to produce his identity card. Willcock refused, reportedly saying "I am a Liberal, and I am against this sort of thing". Muckle gave Willcock a form to produce his identity card at any police station within two days, to which Willcock replied "I will not produce it at any police station and I will not accept the form". He then threw the form on the ground. Willcock failed to produce the form within the prescribed period of time, and was prosecuted under the National Registration Act 1939.
Before the Highgate justices, Willcock argued that the statutory power to require the production of an identity card had lapsed when the state of emergency which led to the passage of the National Registration Act 1939 had expired. The justices rejected the argument, but gave Willcock an absolute discharge and encouraged him to appeal. Separately, he was fined 30s for speeding.
The magistrates' decision was appealed to the High Court by way of case stated. Unusually, the appeal was heard by a bench of seven judges in a divisional court of the King's Bench Division, which included the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard, and Sir Raymond Evershed MR. Willcock's defence team was made up of prominent Liberals including Archibald Pellow Marshall KC, Emrys Roberts MP, and Basil Wigoder, who offered their services free. Sir Frank Soskice, the Attorney General, appeared as amici curiae.
The judgment of the magistrates was upheld. A majority of the Court (Lord Goddard CJ, Somervell and Jenkins LJJ, Hilbery and Lynskey JJ; Evershed MR and Devlin J dubitantibus[clarification needed]) held that the 1939 Act remained in force, as no Order in Council had specifically terminated it. However, Lord Goddard was critical of the Government:
"This Act was passed for security purposes; 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—except for the technicality that a state of war exists—tends to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers, which is a most undesirable state of affairs. Further, in this country we have always prided ourselves on the good feeling that exists between the police and the public, and such action tends to make the people resentful of the acts of the police, and inclines them to obstruct the police instead of assisting them. For these reasons I hope that if a similar case comes before any other bench of justices, they will deal with it as did the Highgate bench and grant the defendant an absolute discharge, except, of course, where there is a real reason for demanding sight of the registration card."
The Court dismissed the appeal, but did not award costs against Willcock.
Aftermath and later life
As a result of the case, Willcock became well-known and he founded the Freedom Defence Association to campaign against identity cards. In a publicity event, he tore up his own identity card in front of the National Liberal Club, inspiring in April 1951 a similar action for the press outside Parliament by the British Housewives' League.
The Liberal Party's attitude to Willcock's campaign has been described as 'half-hearted', possibly because Willcock was associated with the free-trade wing of the Party. The issue of identity cards did not feature in its manifesto for the 1951 general election.
After the defeat of the Labour Government in the general election of October 1951, the incoming Conservative administration of Winston Churchill was pledged to get rid of the scheme to 'set the people free', in the words of one minister. On 21 February 1952 the Minister of Health, Harry Crookshank, announced in the House of Commons that national identity cards were to be scrapped. This was a popular move, adopted against the wishes of the police and the security services. When identity cards were abolished Willcock received hundreds of redundant cards through the post to auction for charity. In 1952, he forced an election for the four honorary vice-presidencies of the Liberal Party, but lost.
- "Policing by plastic" by Alan Travis; The Guardian, 30 May 2003
- "Harry Willcock: the forgotten champion of Liberalism" by Mark Egan in Journal of Liberal Democrat History; issue 17, Winter 1997
- Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg MP on why Willcock is one of his personal heroes, 29 October 2009