Monday, 22 March 2010

Johnston: How do we win back our freedom?

I still don't have the answer, and neither, as far as I can tell, does Philip Johnston, but his recent article for the Telegraph is worth reading.

When I was growing up, there were two common phrases that you hardly ever hear today. One was: "It's a free country." The other was: "There should be a law against it." They tended to be uttered by people older than my parents who had been born not long after the First World War and may well have fought in the Second.

These phrases captured the essence of Britishness and why those wars were fought. We were, or imagined ourselves to be, "a free country" in a way that most European countries were not and had never been. That notion of being free defined us. We were not people subject to arbitrary state power and we both knew it and could say it. Perhaps this first phrase was used ironically at times; but when I heard it as a young boy it had a sense of certainty and permanence about it. What are we? A free country.


However, neither of these phrases applies today. We are no longer a free country, not in the way previous generations would have understood the phrase; and as for the demand for laws, there almost certainly already is a law against it.

The point is that the two go together. Liberty is freedom from the arbitrary exercise of the law, even if the people applying it believe they are doing it for your own good. There is nothing worse than a paternalistic government that believes it has the right to interfere in our personal lives and justifies doing so on altruistic grounds. At least with despotisms you know where you stand: despots are seeking to exercise power over the individual and have few philanthropic reasons for doing so. It is far easier to rail against them, if more dangerous.

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