“F is for freedom, wot the British brag about,” went the quote. “If you haven’t got your dinner, you’re free to go without.”
The suggestion, of course, was that while the British pride themselves on their freedoms, the definition of what constitutes freedom is, and always had been, highly selective.
It’s true that political freedom often means little to those who can’t afford to put food on the table; and it’s even more true that political freedom fully exercised, by all citizens in a society – the right to vote, organise, protest and campaign – tends to lead to the kind of improvements in social justice that set the privileged all of a-quiver, and have them searching for ways of limiting the impact of freedom and democracy, even while they continue to embrace the rhetoric.
Hence the truly absurd week we have just witnessed in UK politics; when, football aside, the main topic of discussion has been the Prime Minister’s determination, come 19 July, to “free” us all (insofar as he can, in devolved times) from the obligation to wear masks in some public settings.
Just why a certain cohort of ageing Tories are so enraged by the legal requirement to wear masks is a psychologically interesting question, and one perhaps too complex to unpack here.
Whatever the cause, though, an increasingly exasperated nation has had to endure days of government ministers opining that mask-wearing should be an “individual choice”, and explaining how they might just continue to wear one to “protect themselves”; a comment which suggests that unlike most of the rest of the nation, they have not been listening to a single word of their own government’s guidance on masks, which has made it clear from the outset that we wear masks to protect others, not ourselves.
All of which seems, as a debate on ‘freedom’, doubly absurd in a week when this same government has been promoting a series of seriously illiberal measures, which will have a profound impact on those significant democratic freedoms that actually help to redistribute power in a dynamic democracy.
On Monday, for example, the House of Commons waved through the third reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, in a procedure which was publicly condemned by many MP’s as offering what the SNP’s Joanna Cherry called “a ridiculously short and disjointed” debate. Cherry is a member of Westminster’s cross-party Human Rights Committee, whose report on the legislation, raising concerns and proposing amendments, was simply ignored by the government, and in the shortened debate.
Now it should be made clear that this bill applies only to England and Wales, and will not directly affect policing in Scotland. Yet still, its insistence on beefing up existing police powers to stop demonstrations which obstruct the highway or cause a public nuisance seems unnecessary at best, and at worst simply oppressive, particularly in its introduction of the concept that demonstrations may be stopped simply for being “noisy”.
As the Human Rights Committee makes clear in its report, the right to be heard – even if some people are annoyed by what is being said or sung – is a key element of the freedom to protest in a democracy; and this is just one aspect of a Bill which, in the committee’s view, shows a general tendency to view protests as a nuisance to be suppressed, rather than as the exercising of a basic democratic freedom which the Bill should positively reaffirm, but does not.
Nor was the new Police Bill the only piece of questionable legislation to appear at Westminster this week. The UK government’s determination to limit voting to those who can produce some accredited form of ID is already provoking opposition on its own Tory benches, as well as among opposition MP’s groups.
A move straight from the right-wing play-book of Donald Trump and his supporters, it is ostensibly being introduced to deal with a problem which does not exist, since voter impersonation in the UK is currently minimal, but in fact, will only deter from voting those who have no ready access to forms of identification such as passports and driving licences – that is, the already poor and excluded.
Then finally, there was the introduction, from Priti Patel’s Home Office, of yet another dire piece of legislation on border control and immigration, a trashy piece of right-wing gesture politics which attempts – probably in breach of international law – to criminalise anyone who arrives in Britain “illegally” (itself a dubious concept), along with anyone who assists them in doing so.
And taken together, these three pieces of legislation make it absolutely clear that for Boris Johnson’s government, at least, the idea of “freedom” simply stops at the point where it ceases to suit the powerful, and starts to confer significant rights and liberties on those who need them most.
In a sense, it is one of the tragedies of the present generation of Tories that they understand so little about the country they claim to love, from its four-nation character, to the radical and reforming tradition that produced some of the greatest of British achievements.
Even as I write, many of them are pivoting frantically from open contempt for Gareth Southgate’s England team, and the “woke” principles that unite it, to uncritical support for its success.
The rest of us, though, had better keep our eyes open for further attacks on the liberties that really matter; and for cynical attempts to distract us with cake, circuses and culture wars, at precisely the moment when those authoritarian moves most urgently need to be exposed and debated, in what remains of our public square.