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Mick Hume

Whatever happened to freedom?

Through all the countless speeches and statements and press conferences and television interviews of the general election campaign, one word has barely passed any leading politican's lips: freedom.

Freedom has been so devalued that those running for public office in a Western democracy like Britain no longer feel the need even to pay lip service to it. That is a remarkable turnaround. After all, the notion that we live in a free society at the heart of the free world used to be the proudest boast of British governments and opposition leaders alike. Now it seems that freedom has become a dirty word, something that can be casually associated with immorality, promiscuity or greed.

The major parties' 1997 election manifestos bear testimony to the degradation of freedom. The Tory Party has traditionally sought to associate itself closely with this cause. Its manifesto, 'Our Vision For Britain', still uses the word 'freedom' on 14 occasions. But exactly what are the freedoms that the Conservatives are concerned about today?

Six of those 14 mentions in the Tory manifesto refer to freedom for schools - freedom to opt-out of local education authority control, freedom to charge fees, freedom to hire and fire teachers - while another one upholds the freedom of fundholding doctors to manage their own budgets. Elsewhere the manifesto says that there should be less freedom for criminals, and that the courts should have the freedom to allow the names of convicted juveniles to be published. Three of the other mentions of freedom are rhetorical outbursts of Euro-scepticism (including a commitment to the freedom to plant trees after the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy). And the last two are a rhetorical outburst of Conservative support for the family as the basis of freedom, and a rhetorical outburst celebrating the end of socialism as a 'triumph for human freedom'.

The Labour Party manifesto 'new Labour: Because Britain Deserves Better' is even thinner in the freedom department. The programme on which New Labour is going to be governing the country from May mentions the word just five times. Three of those references are to freedom of information, as part of New Labour's sanctimonious moral crusade to 'clean up politics'. The other two deal with Labour's commitment to the 'commercial freedom' of the Post Office, and its support for the freedom to explore the countryside - tempered, of course, by a warning that New Labour will not permit any 'abuse' of the right to ramble.

In these statements of principle from Britain's great parties of state, 'freedom' is at best trivialised and belittled, at worst twisted to mean its very opposite. There is no mention in either manifesto of the big democratic freedoms that have traditionally been seen as the defining values of British civilisation. The fact that New Labour, the natural party of government for our times, feels the least discomfort about devaluing freedom is a telling sign of which way the wind is blowing.

The resounding silence about basic freedoms is doubly remarkable, because so many of the political and personal freedoms which formally exist in our society are under assault today. There is a continuous process of encroachment upon our freedoms by official and quasi-official bodies. Yet it seems to mean nothing to those who are setting the current agenda for public debate.

Some of our fundamental political and public freedoms are now in the firing line. Freedom of speech is continuously being curtailed in the censorious climate of the nineties. The freedom to assemble and to protest have been severely undermined by the repressive public order and anti-trade union laws of the Tory years. Even the principle of a free vote has been rendered pretty meaningless in the latest electoral farce; after all, what does democracy mean when there are no competing political alternatives on offer, and the opposition parties are even prepared to vacate the field altogether in order to let a knight in a white suit stand on an explicitly non-political platform?

Many of our personal and private freedoms are being more explicitly trashed today. Homes are no longer castles at a time when an army of council inspectors, policemen and social workers can demand access to a family's most intimate affairs. You no longer have the freedom to argue with your partner, smack your own children or even let a child play outside without risking the wrath of the intrusive authorities. Nor do you have the freedom to smoke, drink, drive, watch a film, own a gun, adopt a child, enter a public building or walk down a street without negotiating an expanding minefield of regulations, restrictions and surveillance measures.

That important outposts of freedom are being lost is bad enough. That this is not even a controversial issue makes matters far worse.

Freedoms which people spilt blood, sweat and tears over are now being given up without so much as a sniffle. Indeed it is widely taken for granted today that too much freedom is a bad thing, and that the popular passions and ambitions need to be kept in check by more enlightened authorities. The right to self-determination, for example, a freedom which the proud peoples of the old colonial world fought for and won at great cost, has now been erased by a global consensus which agrees that Western charity officials and international financiers know what is best for the poor little Africans and Asians. It is a similar story elsewhere, as panicky responses to society's problems turn into demands for more controls on human behaviour, aka less freedom.

We are not only living in an unfree society, but one which often seems uncomfortable with what little freedom it has; an anxious society in which far too many people seem prepared to offer up their freedoms for sacrifice even before the authorities demand them, in return for the empty promise of a bit more order and security.

There is no time to lose if we are to make the case for freedom before things go too far. Freedom is not just a nice idea or an abstract principle that should be upheld for its own sake. An unchecked assault on society's freedoms will have profound implications for the kind of life we can lead, both as individuals and as a collective humanity.

Over the past 200 years or so, the expansion of freedom has created the space within which human beings could experiment and make progress without the old constraints. Freedom in the political and private spheres has allowed societies the chance to move forward. Individuals who have enjoyed the freedom to break through the barriers of convention and respectability, in fields of human activity ranging from science to social reform, have been instrumental in making the world the place it is.

Restricting freedom is a recipe for stagnation, for holding back the human potential to improve. And that is the last thing we can afford to do, surrounded as we are by the growing feeling that society has reached a dead-end.

There is a need now to take an uncompromising stand for freedom; for the freedom to speak as we find, to judge for ourselves, to live as autonomous adults. LM magazine is making a start by upholding free speech against all-comers, with the launch of the Fight for the Right to be Offensive.

This initiative reflects a concern that has grown within LM over our 100 issues, as we have mapped the creeping progress of censorship and self-censorship in society. That concern has been thrown into sharper relief by LM's current battle against ITN's libel writs and gagging orders, where we have been shat upon from a great height for trying to exercise freedom of speech at the expense of conventional wisdom and powerful interests.

Apparently 'It's a free country, ain't it guv?' is no longer an acceptable line of defence.

The fight for the right to be offensive

It is only the controversial that we need worry about protecting. The conventional can look after itself.

We might still have the formal right to free speech. But that means nothing unless we can exercise the right to be offensive.

Today it seems as if anything that can be adjudged offensive, either to 'decent people' or to some delicate minority, can automatically be ruled out of order. Offensive opinions, language, gestures, films, books, art, TV shows, adverts and jokes have all been censored, cut, punished or withdrawn in order to protect public sensibilities.

Yet it is surely only the controversial and the offensive that we need worry about protecting. The mainstream and the conventional can look after itself.

Since Galileo was convicted of heresy for insisting that the Earth was not the centre of the Universe, the heralds of the new have always been branded offensive. Every social or scientific advance worth having, from contraception and the railways to votes for women and the abolition of slavery, began by outraging the conventions of its time.

Offending the set prejudices of public opinion has always been the first step towards popularising a more forward-looking outlook. If a few had not insisted upon their right to be offensive, humanity might have nice manners but it would still be somewhere in the caves.

In the stultifying atmosphere of today, there is an especially pressing need for a full discussion of possible alternatives for a society which seems to be at a dead-end. Yet at the very moment we require open minds, the insecure are seeking to close down debate, control what can be said and outlaw anything 'extreme' or 'offensive'.

In response to this dire state of affairs, it is time for those of us who are concerned about freedom and democratic debate to insist upon our right to tell it like it is, to bust every social taboo, to blaspheme in the face of all religiosity and outrage public opinion. In short, we should fight for the right to be offensive.

Free speech should not be constrained either by bans, libel laws or 'responsible' self-censorship. In a world of adults, we should expect to be able to speak for ourselves, to judge for ourselves and to stand up for ourselves. Anything less is an offence against freedom.

Reproduced from LM issue 100, May 1997



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