John Humphrys - How Keen Are We on Freedom?

August 15, 2021, 7:36 AM UTC

There have been several ‘freedom’ days during our long exodus from lockdown. There was the one in June that got postponed to July and itself turned out not to be quite the full deal. Now there’s another, this coming Monday. But that too won’t be total and there’s talk of wholly new restrictions – vaccination passports? – being imposed in the autumn. Throughout, Boris Johnson has been the among the keenest to restore our freedoms. This may reflect his personal inclinations: read any biography of our prime minister and he emerges as someone who breaks rules and exploits freedom whenever it suits him. But it may also reflect his view of us: that the single most important feature of the British character is love of freedom. But is it?

From the outset of the pandemic it was widely believed, and not just by Mr Johnson, that the British people would simply not put up with the sorts of curbs on our freedoms that the experts were saying would be necessary if we wanted to see off the virus. We watched the Chinese close down whole cities and reached for the stereotypes. The Chinese people don’t enjoy any freedoms anyway, so of course they’d fall in line with whatever draconian restrictions their tyrannical government imposed on them wouldn’t they? But we, the pioneers of Western freedom, were made of different stuff and wouldn’t stand for it. Then the Italians did much the same as the Chinese. By the time the Prime Minister followed suit and closed the economy down, most people thought he’d been too slow to act.

What has surprised our leaders (and maybe all the rest of us) is how ready we’ve been to buckle down and do as we’re told. We were even quick to volunteer to police it all ourselves. Find yourself sitting idly on a park bench in the early days of the first lockdown and you’d risk being assailed by people you’d assumed were your friendly neighbours accusing you of being an Enemy of the People. Even now you can still see slightly frightened-looking people walking about wearing a big badge informing everyone else that their medical condition exempts them from having to wear a mask. Maybe they fear being accosted by the mask vigilantes in our midst.

So perhaps the Prime Minister needn’t have been so anxious to give us back our freedom. We haven’t exactly been chafing at the bit for the loss of them. Monday will see doubly-jabbed adults and children no longer having to isolate if they get pinged and school bubbles will be done away with. But it’s certainly not the end of all Covid controls. Try visiting someone in a care home if you don’t believe me.

All societies can be characterised in terms of where they lie on a spectrum which has freedom at one end and order and security at the other. Their place on the spectrum is held to be an indicator of the alleged preferences inherent in their national character. So it is said that the French, for example, favour freedom over order. One wag once described the French political system as being orderly democratic government ‘tempered by revolution’. What he meant was that the French love of freedom periodically boils over, with the people taking to the streets and telling their rulers what they can do with themselves. Sometimes it leads to the guillotine, sometimes it’s just the gilets jaunes blocking country roundabouts, besieging Paris with farm vehicles and forcing hapless ministers trained in the remote, elite écoles to rip up their policies and start again. In France, it’s the rulers who tend to end up receiving orders.

Germans, by contrast, are said to favour order and security over freedom. They certainly did in 1933 when they elected the man who promised to restore order after the near-anarchic freedoms of the previous decade. Most historians would agree that had Hitler not then immediately abolished democracy but instead faced the voters again in, say, 1938, he’d have been returned with a landslide. Germans like order and continuity. When Angela Merkel packs it in next month, she’ll have run Germany for sixteen years, a length of time not even approached by contemporary leaders in other democratic countries. The Germans have had eight leaders since the war. We have had twice as many. It’s not that the French don’t like order or the Germans freedom: it’s that their national characters seem to have different preferences as to which is more important.

Looking at the two ends of the spectrum, the most extreme cases would seem to be the United States and China. From its very origins as a rebellion against government, America has proclaimed itself as the great land of freedom. But from a European perspective, its championing of freedom can sometimes seem to be bordering on the insane. We look at the immensely powerful gun lobby that successfully resists tighter gun control in the name of freedom and think they must be mad when the evidence is staring them in the face that it leads to far more people getting shot and killed and to deranged misfits regularly strolling into schools, armed to the teeth and shooting everyone in sight. The dreadful murders in Plymouth this week are, tragically, almost weekly occurrences in the States.

Or we look at the extreme American anti-vaxx-ers, outraged that their government should be trying to persuade them to get jabbed, and we wonder why they should be getting so hot under the collar when their government is only trying to pursue a sensible public health policy. We tend to put it down to stupidity – these people must be just thick. To look at some of them, it’s hard not to reach that conclusion. But there are plenty of Americans who take the ‘freedom’ line on vaccination or gun control and are not at all thick. They know perfectly well that the lack of gun control means more people get killed, or that not being vaccinated risks death from Covid, but for them freedom to make their own decisions rather than have governments tell them what to do trumps both considerations. Death from Covid or from gun crime is, they might say, ‘a price worth paying’ for freedom.

At the other end of the spectrum is China. Again, from a European perspective we look at the tight control imposed by the Chinese Communist Party on all aspects of life in China and suppose that ordinary Chinese people must be groaning in their chains, desperate to gain the freedoms we all take for granted. Again, some will. But we can’t assume they all do. Many will think that the monopoly power of the Communist Party is a price well worth paying for the order and prosperity it has brought about. I remember talking to a group of highly intelligent young Chinese students at the LSE some years ago and they seemed genuinely baffled that I kept asking them whether they wouldn’t so much prefer to be able to elect their leaders freely. To them it wasn’t they who didn’t ‘get it’; it was me.

And it would be fascinating to know what an ordinary, intelligent, informed Chinese person was thinking when he watched America elect Donald Trump its president; when he followed Trump’s career and saw that the leader of the free world spent his working days watching television, playing golf and firing off abusive tweets at his enemies; and then saw him encourage his supporters to storm the Capitol when the voters kicked him out of office. That ordinary Chinese observer might well have reflected that President Xi was perhaps rather better qualified to do his job, probably spent his working days rather differently and more productively, and was even a leader of whom an ordinary Chinese person could be proud. Just saying – I’ve no idea.

So where does Britain stand on the spectrum? We’ve always assumed we’re towards the freedom end of things. It fits in better with our national myth, a phrase I use in its proper sense, meaning the story we tell about ourselves rather than that it is necessarily a lie. That we are an island has contributed to our sense of valuing being free: we haven’t been endlessly overrun, as everyone else

has, at least in Europe. And we were the pioneers of various forms of freedom: freedom of speech; freedom from arbitrary oppression because of the rule of law; and freedom of government in that we democratically choose who rules us. This national myth still informs our politics: the Brexit campaign’s ‘Take back control’ encapsulated a certain concept of freedom.

Of course to see ourselves as unswervingly committed to freedom is to flatter ourselves. It makes us feel good. And it is a feeling that has been exploited to good ends. Between May 1940 and June 1941 when Britain ‘stood alone’ against Nazism, Churchill played that flattering card to stiffen our resolve. All those radio broadcasts about fighting on the beaches and the landing grounds cleverly took it as read that we were indomitable defenders of freedom. It was because of that, he implied, that we’d have the courage to fight to the end.

All this was wonderful for morale: it’s marvellous to be told that you’re a fearless hero. But was it actually true that the British people in 1940 felt themselves to be indomitable defenders of freedom, ready to fight to the end and die in the ditches? There’s good reason to think not. Public opinion, at least initially, seemed ready to do a deal with Hitler, opt for a quieter life and settle for peace and order even at the expense of freedom. That was the strand of public opinion represented in the War Cabinet by Halifax, arguing for a deal. And it very nearly won out. Only by telling us that we loved freedom more than we really did was Churchill able to get us to fight for it.

So where, in more peaceful times, do we now stand on the spectrum? Again, there’s reason to think we’re less committed to freedom than we like to flatter ourselves we are. In a famous and extraordinarily prescient remark, the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, predicted, back in the 1830s, that freedom in America (and, by implication, other democracies) would eventually be strangled by an ever-tightening net of petty rules and regulations. They might well have been brought in for the best of reasons, but as they accumulate they force us to settle for order and security over freedom. If you doubt this has happened, look around you.

Take, for example, any ordinarily busy main road in a British town or city. Just look at the proliferation of road signs telling you what speed you can go, whether or not you can turn right or left, whether it’s becoming one way, what side road is no entry, whether it’s a different speed limit, whether you can park, how long you can park, how you should pay to park, what the hours are when you shouldn’t even enter the road at all, where the cycle lanes are, when you can and can’t enter the bus lane and so on and so on. And it’s all getting even more complicated. Roads you used to drive down freely are now closed for a stretch during the hours of the school run.

And then there are now the new ‘low traffic neighbourhoods’ with their own jungle of signs telling you who can and who can’t enter. Each of these signs could be defended as a necessary and sensible response to a problem but they are also a perfect, physical representation of de Tocqueville’s prediction. Soon we are going to have to lower the speed limit to 5mph simply to give drivers the chance to read all this stuff.

And all that’s in just a small corner of modern life, driving. Everything else is exactly the same. And there’s a ratchet effect. Laws that were brought in only to cover an emergency have a habit of sticking around on the statute book. And infringements of liberty that we once took great exception to, we now just shrug our shoulders about – remember how exercised we got about CCTV cameras? Now, we barely mention them. Of course we’re outraged at the prospect of the next stage in the process – facial recognition technology. Obviously we’ll be holding out against that in the name of freedom. Really? Come back and report in ten years time what our attitudes are.

In short, just as modern society tends in the direction of more and more rules and less and less freedom, so our own attitudes tend away from freedom towards a preference for, or at least an acquiescence in, rules and order. Talk to anyone working in a big organisation like the BBC, or even a small one, like a care home, and they’ll tell you that half their life is devoted to ‘compliance’ – making sure they’re not only obeying all the rules but recording that they are obeying all the rules.

Libertarians, whether of the left or right, who think government intervention in our lives should be the exception rather than the rule, are becoming almost quaint. Boris Johnson used to think of himself – possibly still does – as one of them, but office is pushing him in the other direction and libertarians in the Conservative Party, rather like far-leftwingers in the Labour Party, tend these days to flourish only out of office.

The key test of our supposed love of freedom is still to come: it’s whether or not we are prepared to stand up for freedom of speech. There are always people who come up with ‘good’ reasons why it should be curbed in one way or another, and you may have spotted that there are a few around at the moment. Some are so convinced they are right that they don’t want us even to have an argument about it – order and security (aka ‘safe spaces’) must always trump freedom in their book.

But that’s perhaps for another time. As of Monday morning, you may go down on your knees in thanks to Boris Johnson for no longer ordering you to isolate for ten days if you are double-jabbed but have been pinged, what will be your answer to the question: ‘how keen are we really, on freedom?’

Let us know