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What Price Liberty? How Freedom Was Won and Is Being Lost

In the 1620s, Charles I warned that the nation faced being “assailed and swallowed up by a vigilant and powerful enemy”. To defend “the common safety of us and our people”, he imposed a compulsory loan on his subjects, and men who refused to pay were arrested and held without charge, reason or evidence. And if they brought a writ of habeas corpus, the attorney general argued, and the court agreed, that in matters
affecting national security the king’s judgement of what was necessary must be absolute.

Sounds familiar? Governments throughout history have pleaded threats to the “safety of us and our people” to justify the suspension of legal safeguards. When the country faced plausible danger of invasion, the British tolerated infringements of their liberties, though not without grumbling. From 1914, for example, the home secretary could hold suspects indefinitely without trial, and it was a crime to spread reports that “might” cause alarm, aid the enemy or undermine military recruitment. When invasion was not in prospect, governments pleaded enemies within: Catholics, anarchists, communists, trade unionists, the IRA. Public resistance was then stiffer, if not always successful.

Now, however, we face, or so we are told, not invasion, but an existential threat, and not just
to the “safety of us and our people” but to western civilisation. A “war on terror” has been declared, apparently without end. This is closely linked to a second front: the undeclared and equally unwinnable war on risk. This requires every possible preventative action against danger of physical injury, fire, flood, explosion, child molestation, vandalism, ill-health and upset feelings. Once the British presumption was for liberty; restrictions were understood to be provisional and temporary. Now, imagining ourselves to be in a permanent state of war, the presumption is for safety and security.

This book is a brilliant, subtle and erudite account (astonishingly, its author is not yet 30) of how, from the 17th century onwards, we developed our liberties, and how we lost them. There is nothing starry-eyed, romantic or Whiggish about it; Ben Wilson is well aware that Britain was always stronger on rhetoric than reality, that protestations of liberty often allowed the propertied classes to maintain privilege and control, and that modern threats to freedom come as much from corporate interests as from the state, and that the two frequently act in concert.

But the most important difference between present and past threats to liberty, Wilson argues, is that we, the people, have stopped caring. Our loss of liberty is largely self-inflicted. Even as we complain about officialdom poking its nose in, we demand protection from all hazards, and look for some authority to blame (and to sue) immediately disaster befalls us. Like spoilt children, we demand release from parental restraint but run wailing to Mummy once we graze our knees, asking where she was when we fell.

Liberty, as Wilson points out, cannot be bottled for all time. There is “no such thing as liberty in an absolute sense”, he writes. It needs continual rethinking and renegotiation, and means different things in different times and places. The Americans’ insistence on gun ownership seems foolish to us, but they derived the principle from 17th-century England, where an armed citizenry looked preferable to a standing army, which concentrated power and patronage in state hands and might suppress dissent. Again, undisturbed enjoyment of property was declared, by the ruling class and its legal system, as the bedrock of liberty, not to be compromised by airy-fairy notions of workers’ or tenants’ rights.

British liberties never rested primarily, Wilson argues, on written codes. Indeed, the statute book contains more repressive laws – sporadically revived by authority – than guarantees of liberty. We sometimes pretend that 1688 was our 1776, yet James II was ousted not because he threatened liberty, but because he allowed Catholics to enrol in the army and run Oxford colleges. The Glorious Revolution was followed by the suspension of habeas corpus, and the Crown’s powers, though increasingly wielded jointly with par­liament, grew during the 18th century. Unlike the Americans, the British were never strong on political freedoms, valuing instead the freedom to do, say and wear what the hell they like.

Such liberties were protected not by laws, but by the people’s temper. Now the temper has changed and liberty, Wilson writes, is “detached from its moorings”. Paradoxically, in a society that strives constantly to expand individual consumer choice, we become less free year by year. Politicians court popularity by sneering at soft-headed defenders of civil liberties, while MPs such as David Davis and Bob Marshall-Andrews, who see liberty as a principle not to be sacrificed to expediency, are made to look quaint.

We now demand personal rights rather than liberty in a social sense. Those who see speed cameras as infringements of their liberty to drive fast often welcome the town-centre closed-circuit TV cameras that curtail the teenager’s liberty to hang out. Those who demand free speech for themselves also demand that offence to themselves be prohibited. Liberty has become a commodity, fought over in a competitive marketplace. Everybody wants a large slice of it, at whatever cost to their fellow citizens. Equally, they want to deny it to others whom they perceive as threats or nuisances. We have lost, as Wilson says, the instinct for liberty and the full price, I fear, has still to be paid.

What Price Liberty? How Freedom
Was Won and Is Being Lost

Ben Wilson
Faber & Faber, 461pp, £14.99

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.