Monday, April 22, 2024
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The very limits of democracy are being tested


WE can all agree that even in a democracy with an unwritten constitution, certain actions are beyond what would be reasonable for any Government to do. 

It would of course be unacceptable to close schools for months on end when the risk of fatality to pupils was well under 0.01 per cent, or stop loved ones saying goodbye to their elderly in care homes, or ban a crowd from watching a football match or attending a church service for no good reason. No government in this country would ever do that.

The limits of the state are open to debate but we all broadly know when a line has been crossed. In this land historically the will of the majority was generally checked to ensure one could peacefully go about one’s private business without undue interference from those entrusted to govern us. 

We have been fortunate in that over many centuries Britons have generally avoided arbitrary rule. Even if subsequently lionised, Magna Carta was an early attempt to codify the limits of kingly power. Perhaps the clause ‘No free man shall be seized, imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed, exiled or ruined in any way, nor in any way proceeded against, except by the lawful judgement of his peers and the law of the land’ is the most powerful statement at a time when in many other lands power was absolute and often arbitrary.

Until the First World War, the British peacetime state was small at around 10 per cent of GDP, or a tithe if you like, largely focused on the defence of the realm and law and order. There was a strong charitable sector in terms of education, welfare and medical assistance which was much better and more universal than now portrayed, and it was largely not provided by the state.

As the historian AJP Taylor put it, ‘Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale, nearly £200million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent of the national income.” 

The two world wars were a disaster at many levels but their legacy lives on in a state that has changed beyond all recognition not just from Taylor’s time but from even ten years ago. Today we are witnessing an almost daily attack on our liberties in the private sphere which would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.

Readers will have their own endless lists of state overreach which until recently would have been considered incredible. Lockdown is of course the most disturbing example, with devastating consequences, not least for amply demonstrating to Government it can broadly do whatever it likes with its mass media megaphone. It broke the taboo and with it potentially opened Pandora’s Box. 

Aside from lockdown, the state’s attack on liberty concentrates on four key verticals: undermining the monetary base and private wealth through excessive deficits and quantitative easing; Net Zero; woke and positive discrimination, and an increasingly compliant and unquestioning mass media, muzzled by vested interest, advertising spend and regulation.  

As an example, even a few years ago the state did not consider the possibility of banning the combustion engine, of encouraging universities to discriminate on race, gender and background, or thinking it wise that Ofcom might censor the news.

Previously, Government might have encouraged innovation in new technology but it accepted that broadly a market solution was the best way forward. Buy an electric car if you like, but it’s your choice. They accepted the right of the ablest to go to the top universities with the system not skewed by some arbitrary, gameable formula, and they broadly believed in the freedom of the press even if they did not much like the scrutiny (because politicians needed it when in opposition).

There are now hundreds of examples of Big Brother state dictating terms well beyond what any freedom-loving person would say was their natural right. But perhaps the prize for the most absurd and illiberal micro-aggression from government comes from woke Edinburgh Council who have just voted to ban meat from all buildings including schools, care homes and hospitals under their control. In doing so they demonstrate just how far the woke agenda has reached and how cocky and confident our masters are that they can do whatever they like with barely a peep of outrage, so controlled have the  people become.

I obviously was not privy to the discussions that took place between the paid officials and elected councillors (it’s a council of no overall control but led by an unholy alliance between Labour, Lib Dems and Tories) but it was evidently justified by the so-called ‘climate emergency’.

It would be easy to laugh at the sheer arrogance of these people if it were not so serious. What right do they have to force law-abiding citizens to eat what they dictate?

We are facing an inversion of democracy where we, the people, periodically vote for a slate then the elected widely ignore the people who put them there and generally do whatever they feel like, aided and abetted by a permanent bureaucracy and supplicant mass media who cheer from the side-lines, manipulating opinion. 

We are witnessing an insane but well-organised challenge to our way of life from a tiny group of people who have no moral right to do what they are doing. Under a fig-leaf of democracy, they are challenging the many who wish to live their lives quietly, privately and peacefully with a state that now feels emboldened to pass law on any sphere it thinks justified, regardless of the harm and inconvenience it may do to that group of citizens. 

Individually each attack is often small, collectively it is disastrous. It’s cars today, gas boilers tomorrow, log burners the day after that, the roast beef of England (or venison of Scotland) the day after that. It might be you don’t have a car, or a gas boiler, or a log stove, or don’t like meat – but one day the state will come after something you really cherish, when it will be too late. 

The very limits of democracy are being tested and it is increasingly an inversion of what is true and just.

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Ewen Stewart
Ewen Stewart
Ewen Stewart is a City economist who runs the consultancy Walbrook Economics. He is director of the think tank Global Britain and his work is widely published in economics and political journals.

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