Just as the Coalition’s key measures on freedom come into force, in The Telegraph, Philip Johnston asks, Is the Coalition really giving us a freer society?
We should all be feeling a little bit freer today. This month, key provisions of the Protection of Freedoms Act come into force; so now we can smoke in a pub, walk in the street without being followed by dozens of CCTV cameras, and not have our phones, emails and other communications tracked by GCHQ. Or maybe not…
Serving on the bill committee for what is now the Protection of Freedoms Act did not inspire me. In evidence, even organisations like Liberty seemed afraid to defend essential freedom in the face of concerns about safety. I prepared a good number of amendments to tighten up the Bill but it became obvious that the Government would accept none of them. The decisions had been made long before the measure was brought before Parliament.
Almost no one dares to take responsibility for increasing risk in society, or even to propose doing so: I could see how hard James Brokenshire worked to deliver even modest improvements. The automatic consequence of this risk aversion and reliance on the state is a progressive surrendering of freedom, principle and moral courage.
In November, I’ll be attending a Liberty Fund conference on Liberty, Power and the Magna Carta. It was arranged long before the Prime Minister’s appearance on Letterman. The conference reading is enlightening: the first paragraph of the preface to Ellis Sandoz, The Roots of Liberty confirms that Magna Carta is the “abiding centerpiece of our heritage as free men”.
Jefferson famously said that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” He was apparently inspired by Henry Saint John, viscount Bolingbroke, writing on the rise and fall of British liberty since Saxon times:
Tho’ the Branches were lopped, and the Tree lost its Beauty for a Time, yet the Root remain’d untouch’d, was set in a good Soil, and had taken strong Hold in it; so that Care and Culture, and Time were indeed required, and our Ancestors were forced to water it, if I may use such an Expression, with their Blood; but with this Care, and Culture, and Time, and Blood, it shot again with greater Strength than ever, that We might sit quiet and happy under the Shade of it; for if the same Form was not exactly restored in every Part, a Tree of the same Kind, and as beautiful, and as luxuriant as the former, grew up from the same root.1
For the moment, it seems that the British people are, on the whole, relatively indifferent to such grand rhetoric. In a democracy, that is reflected in public policy. Where that indifference will take us remains to be seen. My hope is that the British Tree of Liberty has a strong hold in good soil and that we may once again enjoy a new Tree with greater strength than ever.
- See Ellis Sandoz, The Roots of Liberty: Magna Carta, Ancient Constitution, and the Anglo-American Tradition of Rule of Law  [↩]