Lovers of freedom should fear for Britain, not the US
From hunting to religion, the signs are ominous for our tradition of dissent
Monday January 10, 2005
On a wintry London afternoon, I meet a philosopher friend walking along the same path. "America is becoming irreparably divided," he says. "It reminds me of Nazi Germany: the wish for a strong leader."
I argue gently. It's true that, on a recent US visit, I came across an 11-month-old girl with the given name "Sieg Heil"; I think her parents were survivalists. But at the same time, several thousand miles away, Vladimir Putin announced that all Russian provincial governors would no longer be elected, but appointed by him. Here's a vozhd (Stalin's title as leader) in the making.
With its federal system, the US has at least worked out how best to run an enormous country. In Seattle, where I stayed, you're as far from the centre of power as Vladivostok is from Moscow. Solidly Democrat, its citizens felt dispossessed after Bush's re-election. But, as counter-poise, they could elect their own governor and legislature. Bush isn't Hitler.
Isn't it better, though, to think about the country we can do something about: our own? Since the British empire collapsed, the left has been misled into believing that somehow we can change the world morally: a new, ethical imperium (a very different thing from the public's heartfelt response to the tsunami). But morality begins at home.
Many ominous things are happening in Britain, unchecked, that would scandalise those earlier freedom lovers Tom Paine and William Cobbett. Britain would not be Britain without ironclad protection for the members of the awkward squad, who are the inheritors of a long tradition of dissent. Recently, Paul Foot and EP Thompson were two of the most valiant commanders in this freedom army. I'm a minor spear-carrier. But here are the thoughts of a despairing libertarian.
Mantraps, ready to cripple liberty, lie all around us, as if we were villagers trying to poach the lord's game. First I place the steady abolition of the secret ballot, fought for from the Chartists on. This government persists with a scheme that will end in all-postal voting, wide open to fraud and coercion. It gives all power to the man who wants to be master in his house, making his family vote as he does. I know the arguments about increased participation, but true dilemmas are choices not between good and evil, but between rival virtues. Here, quality should outweigh quantity. It's up to politicians to ensure their message entices voters to polling booths.
Then we have the forcing through of identity cards. No longer shall we be able to read ironically about Stendhal's romantic hero Fabrice, as he struggles with constant demands for his "papers" in the petty 19th century tyrannies portrayed in La Chartreuse de Parme. We, too, will have to show our papers, everywhere. No evidence has been produced that the system would hinder real villains or terrorists. It's been driven through as a sheer Nietzschean exercise in will by the prime minister and his tame home secretaries.
Again, there's the grotesque illiberalism of the foxhunting vote. I don't hunt, nor have I any wish to. But in reading Sassoon, Surtees or Trollope, I recognise that it's a long, not dishonourable thread through the fabric of English culture. Admittedly, this law was driven through not by Blair, but by Labour backbenchers - so keen to show their own transient freedom, for once, that they forgot about other people's. But it was Blair who let this "promise" (which he hoped never to keep) stand in his manifestos. If we were really hunting down animal cruelty, far more animals die drawn-out deaths from kosher and halal slaughter. None of these minority pursuits should be actually banned (as opposed to campaigned about).
Finally, we have the project to forbid vigorous criticism of religions. It's a censor's dream. Wordsworth's plea got it right: "Milton! [and Blake and Russell and Chesterton] thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee; she is a fen of stagnant waters." This anti-libertarian law is proposed as a gross sectarian palliative, for mere political gain: the prospect of more Labour votes from Muslims.
Voltaire and Swift proved that what dogmatists fear most is mockery. This truth was rubbed home in December by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the Sikh playwright so disgracefully unprotected by the police - and government. As her satirical play closed and death threats drove her into hiding, Fiona MacTaggart, the minister for race equality, took it all on the chin. The violent dispute was, she said, "a sign of a lively, flourishing cultural life".
Meanwhile, all the government's diktats, its tsarist ukases, rain down from the centre. This regime is wedded to social intervention, for which a better phrase would be social manipulation. Fortunately, the pronouncements are often ignored atlocal level. Peter the Great issued an ukase ordering that all previous ukases be obeyed. The government must often feel similar frustration. It says "Don't smoke", and people continue to smoke. It says "Drink two units", and they continue to drink five. It says "Waste your money by putting it in a Pru pension scheme", and they persist in taking out loans to buy houses. People cling to their eternal (I hope) right to go to hell in their own way.
Last month's findings from the annual British social attitudes survey cast authoritative light on the upshot: disenchantment with a form of politics that seems to have little to do with most people's own anxieties. The most prominent anxiety is a wish to cut immigration. Newcomers are often seen as freeriders on a welfare state other people's taxes paid for.
In Bethnal Green half a century ago, in the crumbling aftermath of the post-war Attlee government, the sociologist Michael Young founded the Institute of Community Studies. He'd resigned as head of the Labour party's research department, because he despaired at the constant barrage of top-down policies, such as yet more nationalisation. He wanted to look at society from the other end up. His most influential publications were Family and Kinship in East London (against anti-family housing policy) and The Rise of the Meritocracy (against judging everyone by how well they pass exams).
The institute now has a new director, Geoff Mulgan, a former strategy and policy adviser at No 10. As a refugee from the Blair regime, he is, I believe, as aware as Michael Young was of the drawbacks of always doing things top down. The institute will, I like to think, undertake studies that will probe, and learn from, many Britons' welcome bloody-mindedness. It's a characteristic they've been known for, internationally, for centuries. In the 21st century, so far, their instinctive love of freedom has been betrayed.
The man, or woman, in Whitehall doesn't know best. Even in the government's current troubles, the present chances of change seem bleak. But every libertarian must hope it's the dark before the dawn. Otherwise, forget America and Russia: it's farewell freedom in Britain.
· Paul Barker is a writer and former editor of New Society email@example.com