How freedom was won and is being lost
by Ben Wilson
It is 150 years since the publication of JS Mills' On Liberty - yet another in this year's astonishing procession of anniversaries - and the subject, if not the reality, of political liberty is more prominent now than it has been for ages. This is partly because, after years in which the government could count on only token opposition, the defenders of liberty have at last woken from their slumbers. But it may also underlie, at some deep level, the current crisis in confidence with the political process. Our politicians are hated, not because they are especially venal, but because they have not defended traditional freedoms. Many people may be unaware of what these traditional freedoms were, they may consciously have desired more laws, but they find themselves today more hemmed in by official restrictions - all eminently "proportionate", of course - than at any time in living memory; no wonder they find themselves lashing out.
In this somewhat febrile climate, it's good to find a book that takes the long view. Ben Wilson's new book What Price Liberty? wonders how it was that we "lost the habit of talking about liberty". In an effort to find out, Wilson examines the movements, debates, events and personalities that have shaped the uniquely British (or is it merely English?) view of personal and political freedom. At every stage, he finds, freedom was contested, denied, campaigned for; it had to be wrested, sometimes violently, from an unwilling establishment. Yet the direction was clear. It is the story of a society that more than any other (with the exception of the Americans) made the sense of themselves as a free people the core of their national identity; and then, over a period of a few short years, stood by and watched impassively, even enthusiastically, as a government that saw itself as modern and progressive took much of it away.
The recent decline in liberty and liberty-consciousness - most of it, anyway - has happened when Labour was in power. It's tempting, then, to blame the present government. And not unfair, given the openly contemptuous language used by politicians such as Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Jacqui Smith and (to a lesser extent) Gordon Brown for traditional principles of legality and freedom and the checks and balances of our unwritten constitution. But it's not just their fault. As Wilson himself notes, part of the problem may lie in inadequate teaching of history. In an age transfixed by whizz-bang technology traditional brakes on state power can all too easily be seen as obstacles in the way of progress, archaic forms to be circumvented if not abolished entirely, rather than as a priceless legacy to be cherished and handed on.
English liberty is contained in no grand Declaration of Independence or Charter of Fundamental Rights (Magna Carta itself being largely a dust-dry list of tax reforms). It is more of a habit - or a habitat, an ecosystem that has grown organically and unplanned. This has been its greatest strength, but it has also left it vulnerable. It lacks the safeguard of entrenched constitutional rights. Politicians concerned with short-term advantage, ministers and bureaucrats concerned with efficiency and technical solutions, newspapers and members of the public demanding that "something be done", have all been liberty's pallbearers.
"Society" writes Wilson, "very frequently needs to be saved from a headlong rush towards things it may later regret - the history of liberty is, without a doubt, the constructions of restraints which are counterintuitive and very often go against the instincts of human nature". Such restraints in Britain have been rarely been set down in law: rather, politicians, civil servants and the police have (usually) known where to draw the line - and the public, too, has known instinctively when the bounds have been overstepped. But the price of liberty, as someone once said (Jefferson? Paine?) is eternal vigilance. And as Wilson comments, "without a questing mind and an appetite for exploration the passion for freedom dies away".
Of course, there are still many people in this country who feel an intense cultural attachment to traditional concepts of freedom - otherwise Wilson's book would have no market, and I wouldn't be writing this blog. And perhaps the pendulum has begun to swing away from the authoritarians. As I noted at the beginning, the "crisis of liberty" is a big theme at the moment. Yet polls continue to show strong support for crackdowns and security measures of one sort or another. Notice how many times Jacqui Smith uses the word "safe". Or consider the ambiguity of the word "security", which evokes both a comfortable image of being at home with a loved one in front of a roaring fire, and a heavy in a uniform, perhaps holding a gun, demanding to see your ID.
Wilson rightly, in my view, stresses the importance of the autonomous, responsible individual as the centre of any true understanding of liberty. In an important chapter, he notes how freedom is inseperable from risk, and that therefore attempts to improve safety - of individuals as of society as a whole - will inevitably endanger freedom. The free individual is, from the point of view of the state, a dangerous individual. He or she might act in an unpredicable way, might abuse their freedom, might harm themselves or others. Better to be safe than sorry (actually, no, it isn't; it's usually better to be sorry). Obviously, there is a balance to be struck. Absolute freedom must be constrained by something. What has been most dangerous, I think, is the increasing centrality of the state as the mechanism of constraint. Previously there were such things as family and community authority, religion, deference, local associations and the rest of Burke's "little platoons". They too could be oppressive, often deeply so, but they at least gave people a sense of their relationship with others as members of society not defined by an all-seeing state.
Many of the problems Wilson identifies will be familiar: the over-eager recourse to legislation, the specific difficulties thrown up by multiculturalism (he discusses the "embarrassingly equivocal response" of liberals to the Danish cartoons), the stoking-up of fears of terrorism and crime (not always the fault of the government), the growth of databases and, yes, health-and-safety. Such "enemies of freedom" are both disparate and of a piece. What they have in common is, at base, a narrowing of scope.
My own understanding of freedom is predominantly spatial: it as, psychologically speaking, having enough room to breathe. Unfreedom is a pressing in from the outside on personal space. Today, people in Britain (and, I daresay, in some other places too) feel the envelopment of the state around ever more aspects of their lives. Things that until a few years ago could be done informally and ad hoc - everything from arranging a gig in a local pub to rewiring your front room - must now be cleared with some bureaucratic agency. Forms must be filled in. Fees must be paid. Paradoxically, even the government has lost much of its former liberty, as a human-rights culture imposes expensive and often counterproductive procedures on central and local government, even on the armed forces, in order to comply with health-and-safety directives, equality laws and the like. Even as it controls us, it finds itself tied down like Gulliver at the hands of the Lilliputians. The result is a type of despotism unprecedented in history: a tyranny without a tyrant.
Reading this book will help you understand how we got into our present mess. It's also valuable as an incisive, intelligently-written historical survey. But it comes with a health warning. "The liberal phase in our history seems to be coming to an end" writes Wilson towards the end. It's almost enough to make you want to kill yourself.
What Price Liberty, by Ben Wilson, is published by Faber and Faber (RRP £14.99)
Monday, 25 May 2009
How freedom was won and is being lost