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Rally on May Day to blow the whistle on the control freaks

Telegraph 25- 04-02

By Charles Moore

EARLIER this week, I went to speak to a distinguished school in central London. Two things happened which surprised me. The first was that the boys congratulated me for wearing a tie (another editor who addressed them had failed to do so). The second was that they presented me with a brilliant magazine which they had just produced themselves almost entirely devoted to the joy of freedom and the lack of people in politics who care about it.

Whose job is it to defend freedom? The answer really is, everyone's. In practice, unfortunately, that tends to mean, no one's.

The people who want to ban tobacco advertising or fur farming or dangerous dogs or drugs or the publication of a something they don't like will seldom outnumber the people who would prefer them tolerated, but they will almost always out-organise them. MPs do not get round robins from the "Please let us get on with our lives" society, but from the thousands of groups that want to ban or control. "Stop X Now" is a far more common message than "Leave X Alone". Politicians, who rather like exerting their power to stop things, are only too happy to oblige.

And it is not just a matter of pressure groups. The control freaks are institutionalised in local and national government. Health and safety at work, anti-racism watchdogs, "best practice" enforcers, the regulators of the privatised industries, the film censors, the inspectorates, the corporate governance compliance men, the CCTV camera operators, health visitors, the officers of environmental standards or local government planning or child protection or animal welfare, the people who come round and decide whether you are suitable to own a shotgun or adopt a child or gain right of abode - these and literally hundreds of thousands of others have a vested, usually state-funded interest in restricting our freedom.

You may have noticed that many of the interferers named above do so in what most people would see as good causes. This, too, is one of freedom's difficulties: there almost always seems, at the time, a good reason for taking it away. If there is crime or disease or poverty or disorder or external threat, there will always be a feeling that these things could be made better if only people were forced to change their behaviour. Such arguments could - and sometimes are - applied to democracy itself. You have to admit, after all, that democracy means that lots of stupid and ignorant and nasty people have the power to decide things that they do not properly understand, slowing everything down and disagreeing about what should be done. Democracy can produce Le Pen as well as Pericles.

The defenders of freedom therefore have to be prepared to be awkward. They have to try to persuade people not to act in haste and repent at leisure, people who are often very angry. Take the issue of paedophilia. Because people are naturally horrified by child abuse, many of them can be persuaded to support almost any measure which purports to punish or control it. This was why the controversial Brass Eye satire on the subject was so brilliant and why so many of the control freaks wanted it banned. The fact that child abuse is a terrible thing does not automatically mean that someone convicted of it should be deprived of all rights in perpetuity, nor that all accusations of it should be believed. Another painful example is hand-guns. After the Dunblane massacre, a huge gust of emotion led to laws banning the ownership of all such guns. It required courage - which very few displayed - to point out that this took away the freedom of thousands of completely legitimate owners and only served to encourage the ever-growing illegal trade.

Last year, we at The Daily Telegraph decided that it was time to look more systematically at the problem of freedom. We did so partly because the word itself is so carefully avoided by the present government, and, indeed, by most politicians. New Labour loves all sorts of good-sounding words like "modern", "radical", "transparent", "accountable", "stake-holder", "fairness", "kids", but gets a bit shy about "freedom". This is a government for whom central control - of administration, the media, of Parliament is the issue. The checks and balances of the constitution are not seen as "modern": they are just a nuisance. The Government's "anti-terrorism" measures turned out to be, in part at least, an attempt to allow government departments to share unprecedented amounts of information held about all of us for whatever range of purposes government might determine. Government Bills, and, even more markedly, measures originating in Brussels, are rushed through Parliament without proper scrutiny. We decided it was time, to use a New Labour phrase, "to blow the whistle".

We also want everyone to reconsider freedom and how truly and completely one values it. Most of us are interested only in those freedoms which coincide with our other beliefs. Thus it is that the Left is obsessed with freedom of information, because of its fear of intelligence services and the police, but hostile to economic freedom. Thus it is that the Right, which protests strongly at intrusive regulation of business, will generally support fierce control of immigration. Why shouldn't liberty lovers of the Left support the right to hunt and those on the Right argue for the right of adults to take drugs? And why is it that so many people in what we think of as a free society are highly suspicious of freedom? Only a facile libertarian could believe that freedom can never be qualified by the need for order. What is the nature of the conflict between the two? To air all this, we began our "Free Country" campaign.

Next Wednesday - May Day - the campaign enters a new phase. The Daily Telegraph has joined forces with Channel 4 for a televised conference in London on freedom in Britain today. It starts with Tom Stoppard and continues with almost equal distinction. We are pleased and, frankly, surprised that the Government has put up a distinguished list of participants. There's Lord Falconer, Charles Clarke, the party chairman and - a first, I think - a joust between the Home Secretary David Blunkett and his opposite number, Oliver Letwin, standard bearer of the New Conservatism. There's Helena Kennedy and Jon Snow and Simon Heffer and, well, it's Liberty Hall. Please come and join us.

Free Country Conference, BP Lecture Theatre, The British Museum, London WC1, May 1, 10.30-5.30. Tickets at #10 from 0870 8303 413