Michael Fry: Libertarians may prove hard to resist

Picture: Neil HannaPicture: Neil Hanna
Picture: Neil Hanna
Revolution and change might be the only way to protect the freedoms so cherished by those who back the Union, writes Michael Fry

He will resist the sweet overtures, the siren voices seeking to lure him from the calm sea-lanes of the Union to the turbulence and treachery of the Bell Rocks or to the sucking seductions of the Corrievreckans that wait on the other side of Scottish independence.

So sounded the song of Brian Monteith, in his column here yesterday, when he explained why a movement of Libertarians for Independence will, despite its superficial beauties and blandishments, get a brush-off from him.

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Our appearance (I am one of those libertarians) on the political scene was to be welcomed as a breath of fresh air, he said, “but for me the best prospect of extending personal freedoms remains at a British level”.

At that point, I almost choked on my breakfast haggis sausage, but just in time noticed how this guru of unionism had specified “prospect” of extending freedoms.

Indeed, he could hardly have said “retrospect” or “record” or “history” of extending freedoms because the UK has been curtailing its citizens’ freedoms for the past three-quarters of a century.

This process was popularly accepted in wartime, but it never stopped for a moment after peace came. Then we got the welfare state which, as Brian says, “expanded exponentially into every facet of our lives”. Even his beloved Mrs Margaret Thatcher did not, in crucial respects, call a halt.

An if anything still greater admirer of hers, the columnist and author Bruce Anderson, memorably said that she “believed in freedom to do what you ought to do” – which roughly equated to the petty bourgeois morality of Grantham and the commercial ethics of Atlas Preservatives. Great British rhetoric was scarcely less strident under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. On the strength of it, routine surveillance of the public became obsessive, supposedly because without it a lot turbaned ragamuffins would have come from the Hindu Kush to blow us all up.

One of the mandarins who advised them on this, the Glaswegian Sir David Omand, suggested that at birth we should all be given a security number to accompany us through this vale of tears. He did not propose it should be tattooed on our left forearms, but that would surely in the end have been found to be the cheapest and most convenient method.

As for the British government of the present moment, the problem of liberty under “a large bureaucratic state” is simply something that, as Brian says, “David Cameron is failing to address”.

When confronted with his own more minor scandal over GCHQ, the Prime Minister just said: “We never comment on security or intelligence issues and I am not about to start now. I don’t make comments on security or intelligence issues – that would be breaking something that no government has previously done.”

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In all this, I fail to see the “best prospect of extending personal freedoms” that is supposed to exist “at a British level”. On the contrary, I see at Westminster a government (let alone an opposition) presently advocating further restriction of a particular freedom – freedom of movement – even to citizens of certain fellow member countries of the European Union, in which that freedom is supposed to be fundamental.

I also note that the Scottish Government objects to such restriction, though it has no power to resist it. But here is at least one area where the “prospect of extending personal freedoms” would be rosier in an independent Scotland than in the UK.

I also believe that the rosier prospect would become more general. The vision of Scotland presented by the No campaign is a vision of the dependency culture, unchanged for the past three-quarters of a century, and, if the naysayers get their way, unlikely to change for another three-quarters of a century. The people running the campaign think they know their Scots: the Scots are subsidy junkies. They girn and groan about this and that, but then you chuck them some money and they pipe down.

This may seem the best means of anchoring Scotland in the UK, but it is not the best means of “extending personal freedoms”. The people living in a dependency culture are not free. The whole purpose of the system is that others, especially those in higher authority, take the people’s personal decisions for them, in everything from the jobs they work at to the houses they live in to the education they give their children. This is how the Labour Party has always run Scotland. Thatcherism failed to change it and now the Conservative Party has given in and accepted the system in essentials too, not to speak of the Liberal Democrats.

It is also true that the SNP accepts the system in essentials as well. But the dependency culture nature relies on a flow of subsidies from Westminster, and in an independent Scotland this would cease. Could North Sea oil fill the gap? Maybe yes, maybe no. In any event, Scots would have to think much more carefully about the economic assumptions they make and the social expectations they build on these. The fear of the crash is the beginning of wisdom.

But I would hope that the whole business might become more inspiring than strictly material calculations allow.

Both Brian Monteith and I did a little to help along the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, which has not had an easy history since its initial triumph on 11 January, 2011, but keeps going gamely on.

In any case, we can all look back to the night of 9 November, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the people of the German Democratic Republic were liberated.

There are moments when a nation is able to change its history – and perhaps Scotland can experience one of them.

That is why there are Libertarians for Independence.

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