Old Heroes for a New Leader: Nick Clegg

As we have done in each of the last two Liberal Democrat leadership elections, in 1999 and 2006, the Liberal Democrat History Group has asked both candidates for the Liberal Democrat leadership to write a short article on their favourite historical figure or figures – the ones they felt had influenced their own political beliefs most, and why they had proved important and relevant. Their replies are being posted up here, and are also posted on our website. First off, here are Nick Clegg’s.

Nick Clegg MP – Harry Willcock and Vaclav Havel

In recent weeks I’ve made it clear that I’d be prepared to go to court rather than be forced to give personal information about myself to a compulsory Identity Cards database. So it’s probably no surprise that the first of my liberal heroes is a North London dry cleaner, Harry Willcock.

When stopped by police in 1950 and asked for his ID card he refused, with the now famous words: ‘I am a Liberal. I am against that sort of thing.’

Harry was an active Liberal, having been a councillor and parliamentary candidate. Thanks to his stand, which was supported by Liberal MPs and Lords at the time, the ID cards programme was first challenged in the courts and then finally scrapped. He showed that one man willing to take a stand can change the system.

The liberal argument put forward by Harry and others in opposition was a fundamental one; it was an argument about liberty and the relationship between the individual and the state. For them, the imposition of ID cards was intolerable because of the power it gave to the state, a power which was inevitably abused.

I was moved recently to see the plaque in the National Liberal Club in Harry’s honour. He died while participating in a debate at the Club, and it is said that ‘freedom’ was the last word to pass his lips.

The arguments of Willcock and the liberals of his day remain relevant. The Liberal Democrats continue to stand against an over-bearing state and are willing to take a stand for what we believe.

My second hero is Vaclav Havel – a man who married high art and high politics. His leadership of the Charter 77 manifesto group and then the Velvet Revolution was an inspiration to people of my generation who witnessed and admired his courage, and that of other freedom fighters behind the Iron Curtain such as Lech Walesa. He showed that men of principle and character truly can change the world.

Havel spent many years in prison and even when released was kept under surveillance and constantly harassed. Yet his determination to change the government of his country for the better did not falter. He put at the cornerstone of his activities a belief in the importance of non-violent resistance. Few politicians can ever hope to move people in the number of ways that Havel did with his words and deeds.

He is also a particular hero of mine because many years ago I met him in his presidential palace in Prague. At the time I was working on the Czech Republic’s application to join the European Union and he gave a small group of us a considerable amount of time. He is a small, quiet man, with a compelling intensity about him.

What Havel and Willcock share is a willingness to take a personal stand on issues of freedom and liberty. It is, quite simply, the essence of liberalism – and that is why they are my political heroes.

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  • Where did Harry Willcock live? I thought he lived in Finchley, and was stopped in Ballards Lane, near Granville Road. I have recently read that he lived in Leeds and was visiting London when he was stopped by a policeman who asked for his Identity Card. Can someone please give an answer?
    I do know that after his success people all over the country burned their identity cards, including me.

  • TimberWolf – that’s a great story – you should write an article about it for LDV.

  • When Nick Clegg says he will never supply information to a compulsory identity cards database, is he also saying he will never renew his passport once the information for latter is used for the former?

  • Angus J Huck 26th Nov '07 - 12:54pm

    I still have both my parents’ID cards. Neither was ever asked to produce them. Not that they would have been much help to the authorities if they had, since wartime ID cards didn’t even have photographs!

  • I notice that Nick shares has admiration of Vaclav Havel with Margaret Thatcher.

    Regarding Harry Willcock. i’m sure he was well-meaning but what an inconsequential ‘hero’. I’m against ID cards because they are a waste of money and the alleged benefit is not worth the intrusion. However, I cannot understand Nick’s posturing. He’ll need to declare more to the state to get a passport and Liberal colleagues abroad seem sanguine about compulsory ID cards. On second thoughts, if he’s likely to be locked up I might back them.

  • Angus J Huck 26th Nov '07 - 2:12pm

    “It is a pity that we couldn’t have all of the great anti-communist dissidents like Walesa, Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn etc”

    Is this the same Alexander Solzhenitsyn who agreed with Malcolm Muggeridge when the latter said: “Isn’t liberalism the great demon?”

  • 1 TimberWolf – Willcock lived in Yorkshire (he was a councillor in Horsforth) until 1944, when he moved to London. He was stopped for speeding on 7 December 1950, in Ballard’s Lane, North Finchley.

  • citizen smith 31st Dec '07 - 6:35pm

    I knew old Liberals who in turn knew Harry Willcock.He was Parliamentary Candidate for Barking, Essex for some years. One story that was often told, that when asked why he refused to give his ID to a policeman if he had “nothing to hide” replied quite reasonably that it was because he might have been sleeping with the Chief Constables wife…

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