The Threat to Liberty (OP)

19th November 2007

The Birmingham Book Festival was once a major event but in recent years it has declined into a pathetic populist charade, populated by the latest celebrity biographers, and aimed at boosting Waterstone’s profits as far as one could tell. This year however, it returned with a serious and interesting programme. We would have liked to attend more events but managed only 2 – which given it was in the middle of a bout of Depression was not too bad.

The first was a talk by the philosopher Anthony Grayling on the subject of the erosion of liberty in Britain. It was good to see a sizeable, if not massive, audience turn out on a Friday night to listen to a philosopher. And Grayling was, indeed, impressive. Clearly he was there to promote his book on the subject, Towards the Light, but his presentation was excellent and he dealt both thoughtfully and politely with questions. Grayling started by saying that his subject was the way in which the Western liberal democracies won the rights which define them today, and are now being slowly eroded. It is  important that we remind ourselves of the price that was paid. The so-called ‘War on Terror’ enables Governments to attack or change laws which define our civil liberties.

 The story of liberty does not really begin until the 16thC, because although it is true that enfranchised citizens (free adult males) enjoyed freedom in the classical world (and one should not downplay the importance of this) these liberties were effectively lost in the 3rd and 4th centuries with the imposition of monolithic Christian thought – a process which continued throughout the Middle Ages. The Church demanded loyalty of thought and behaviour – this period intermits the freedom of the classical world and that of the Reformation of the 16thC. During this period theology became ever more clearly articulated with an emphasis on the evil of this life/world and the richness/goodness of the next one. Then the Renaissance started to glorify this world – we see it clearly in Art. The great paradox of the Reformation is that it comes out of the Renaissance, but is in fact more austere than the RC church of day – it wants to re-focus on the Divine. But there is no question that the Reformation was a revolution in thought. Luther demands a purer Christianity and is followed by Zwingli/Calvin. This precipitates terrible bloodshed culminating in the 30 Years War. 

 But Protestants had proclaimed liberty of conscience and the floodgates were opened, even if The Reformation itself was not an initiator of liberalisation. That, Grayling claimed, happened when Protestants turned into persecutors; the most original, to me anyway, part of the lecture concerned Calvin’s argument with Servetus. Serrvetus argued against the Trinity (he had been in contact with Muslims and Jews in Spain) and published a tract (the first Unitarian tract) which was condemned by both Protestants and Catholics. Servetus came to Geneva and Calvin had him burned at the stake. Calvin’s friend Castellio was outraged by this, and asked ‘how can the persecuted persecute?’. The idea that liberty of conscience was sacrosanct was set alight by Castellio’s writing. From that point the idea of liberty began to grow, evolve and spread, and in a few short centuries we arrived at 20th century ideas of liberty. Liberty of conscience transforms to liberty of thought, science,art. The orthodoxies of both Catholic and Protestant churches are threatened by this. Then liberty moves to the social and political sphere – in the 17thC, that remarkable century. In Macbeth (1605) the killing of a King is a crime against nature, yet in 1649 a King is killed in Whitehall. Grayling has no truck with those wretched revisionists who try to play down these events – he cited Christopher Hill’s remark that the English Revolution is the first great World Revolution with an untold impact. The demons of liberty were roaming abroad. The advanced demands of the Levellers and Diggers were inspirational. So the Enlightenment takes it as a premise that individuals (or white adult males more accurately) are free; the essence of the Enlightenment is autonomy. And so we come to the American and French Revolutions, the former remarkable for its ease as opposed to the bloodiness of the latter. Both however are premised on freedom of the individual, an idea which runs into Romanticism and Kant.

 In the mid 18thC the abolitionist movement begins with Benezet (another figure I had never heard of) a Hugenot who converts to Quakerism and takes them with him. The abolitionist movement involves many women and it is inevitable that someone – Woolstonecraft – would arise to argue that women should not be denied freedom. Similarly Tom Paine argued for working people, and from there we move to Chartism and the union movement of the 19thC. The idea of the liberty of the individual is indivisible, and so the idea of individual liberty is ever expanded outwards and onwards.

 Grayling moved from this breathtaking historical survey to a more philosophical contemplation – the idea of the good life and its intertwining with the idea of individual liberty. The pursuit of happiness is linked to the freedom of the individual, because you cannot live the good life if you live on the basis of other’s people’s ideas about what is a good life (I think I may have missed something here – this is one of the points I will need to pay attention to when I read the book, as, although agreeing with the conclusion, I did not quite follow the chain of argument).

 The end result of all this is that, in terms of liberty, everyone in the 21stC West is a cardinal in  15thC terms. This is a remarkable transformation in the history of the world – in a short time and a limited space. Grayling admitted that his view and presentation were unashamedly Whiggish – history as progress. But he acknowledged that for every two steps forward there is one back.

 The present threat is our own Governments. Grayling argued that liberty is not libertarianism, and cited Mill’s harm principle (do not allow your own actions to harm anyone else) (but Grayling caricatured libertarianism and this section was not fully argued). Western Governments are putting security before liberty. Blunkett claimed that the prime duty of Government is security, but it is not – it is the protection of liberty. 43 days after 9/11 Congress passes the Patriot Act which is the most extraordinary attack on liberty. In the UK attacks on free speech and due process. And worst of all, for Grayling, ID cards.

 He ended by citing Franklin ‘Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither’.

 The Q and A session was interesting but my pen was almost falling from my hand by this point (I am not used to such extensive note-taking!) and I have only sketchy details. Isaiah Berlin came up more than once, and Grayling discussed his two freedoms concept (freedom from as against freedom to) about which I need to remind myself!

 At the end we purchased a copy of Grayling’s book (Towards the Light – an oddly Trollopian echo, he uses the phrase in a very different context and ironically in ‘Can You Forgive Her?’) and queued up to have it signed. I remarked that I was not as optimistic as he was, in an era where people can be arrested for wearing a T-shirt saying Bollocks to Blair. Since then we have seen a woman (Samina Malik) given a suspended prison sentence for writing poetry. A fascinating article by the mystery writer Jessica Mann gives further examples at… (and links this debate to the language of mystery fiction). My own feeling is that liberty in the UK is under sustained attack in a way which I never thought would occur in my lifetime. This is in all sorts of areas including the sexual – the quite extraordinary case where a man was prosecuted and convicted for having sex with a bicycle shows the breadth and depth of the attack.

 Still despite my pessimism and some disagreements on specific points this was a massively enjoyable lecture – erudite, wide-ranging, witty.

 The second event we attended was of a very different kind but was also concerned with the issue of liberty. The speaker was Jasvinder Sanghera who was not there only to promote her book Shame, but to campaign for changes in the law on forced marriages. This started as a very personal talk and I could not attempt to reproduce the pity and anger which it induced. Jasvinder ran away from home to escape a forced marriage and was disowned by her family; she had to live in hiding; her sister killed herself rather than run away from an abusive marriage. Well I can’t convey all this. The remarkable thing is the way that Jasvinder herself has founded refuges, campaigned for changes to the law and continues to do so.

 In terms of my overall theme it re-inforces again that for some women in the UK liberty is a sham, they have no liberty and no expectation of liberty. And the British Government colludes in this attack on liberty, this denial of the most basic freedoms. The situation demonstrates again that liberty is not seen as a primary value, something for which all other considerations – cultural, social, political – must be swept aside and, if necessary, disregarded.

 Jasvinder Sanghera’s talk was one of those which left one ashamed of and disgusted by one’s country. This is the true meaning of the title of her book. The shame is ours who permit our Government to allow this to happen.

 But – to finish at least on an optimistic note – it was great to see the Birmingham Book Festival back in business (or not ‘in business’) with an interesting programme.


Ellen Moody left…

Friday, 21 December 2007 6:25 am ::

Dear Nick,

It’s 1:23 am and I should be asleep but instead am reading your blog. This particular one about Grayling and Sanghera is a gem. I agree with Grayling only think the erosion began at the close of WW2, particularly picking up steam in the 1950s, with the US government the spear head. I like how you stress how the British government allows the terrible suffering of these Muslim women to go on and does nothing.

Thank you.

2. nick hay left…

Friday, 21 December 2007 3:54 pm

Thanks Ellen. I think I should stress that I am not sure what religion Sanghera comes from – and there was no mention of it in her talk. It is not by any means just within Islam that this kind of horror is perpetuated – it exists within all the religions of the Indian sub-continent (Hinduism and Sikhism) and associated communities within the UK. Indeed within Hinudism there are the additional issues of caste. And it is hardly distant history when, for instance, a woman who married outside her religion in Northern Ireland would have been subject to ostracism and under threat of violence.

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