I STILL remember the disbelief that my GCSE history classmates and I felt on learning that in Nazi Germany, neighbours would report their neighbours to the Gestapo for anything that was considered inappropriate, and that parents were fearful of criticising the Nazi regime in front of their children lest they were turned in. We couldn’t fathom how people could do that to their fellow citizens, let alone their family members.
However, Britain, the land that stood so bravely for freedom against the Nazis, has quickly discovered that its citizens are not so different from the Germans who lived in the 1930s and 1940s vis-à-vis running to the police. By the end of April, more than 194,000 calls had been made to the police concerning people breaking the lockdown. This has been a growing trend, the Times reporting on Tuesday that the 101 line was still ‘swamped’ with police putting staff on extra shifts to cope.
Yet it seems there has been more obloquy directed towards the snitchers than the rule-breakers. After government minister Kit Malthouse asked the public to report their neighbours, he was criticised more than praised. That is undoubtedly positive.
Outrage was widespread for one reason and it is this: the British, for the most part, are reasonably well-educated on the Nazi era. Most people have to learn about it at school, and it’s usually covered for two years. They can identify some steps that are too far or too reminiscent of the 1930s, such as reporting neighbours, or mass public shaming of those who refuse to comply with the rules of wearing masks or social distancing. This makes it harder to understand the equally widespread acceptance of the erosion of the public’s freedom since March.
Arguably it reflects a teaching of Nazism separate from and without the context of a strong understanding of Britain’s past as a country which introduced and fought for freedom and liberty earlier than any of its rivals. Britain’s history as a force of liberty is largely unknown to many of its citizens. How many understand that the right to free speech is the defining feature of modern civilisation and that this country was in the forefront of its championing? How many know that Tyndale, translating the Bible, made a language for England or about the role of the early printing presses in disseminating it? How many are aware of the 18th century struggles of the anti-authoritarian figures and pamphleteers Paine, Wilkes and Cobbett?
This void in understanding the past is reaping an awful reward in the naive and misguided nationwide public terror of Covid-19, and the apparent lack of concern about the precious and hard-won nature of our liberties.
This story, just as much as that of the Nazis, needs to be part of the national curriculum. Children should understand what liberty means and know that it is not to be taken for granted. The jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham said that ‘If laws be good, it is desirable that they should be known; if otherwise, the knowledge of them may be mischievous.’ This is relevant not just to the law: it’s vital for the protection of political rights.
In a 2015 speech at Runnymede Green, David Cameron discussed repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 and replacing it with a ‘British Bill of Rights’. He forgot (or did not know) that we already have one which was introduced in 1689. The freedom to articulate oneself without interference, to create petitions, to be safe from arbitrary punishment and to know that one cannot be fined or convicted without a trial observed by their peers are some of the clauses.
These are all things we take for granted today and our failure to learn them has meant that Britain is ignoring them. Free speech is being silenced. Britain’s rich and admirable culture is being cancelled. The right to petition the government has become almost meaningless. Parliament has surrendered its right to debate. The government and the police have recently demonstrated, in the case of Piers Corbyn, that they may fine an individual up to £10,000 without any opportunity to dispute it. The importance of trial before arbitrary punishment dates back further than 1689, to the Assize of Clarendon in 1166. Now it is sidelined. As jury trials are abandoned, the general public don’t put up a fight. Why? Because so few understand that it is the most fundamental guarantor of our liberty.
This can be countered, provided that we have as much energy to learn Britain’s history of liberty as our forebears had when fighting for them. The AQA examination board’s content for history GCSE includes: ‘America, 1920-1973: Opportunity and inequality’, and three modules titled ‘Britain: Health and the people: c1000 to the present day’, ‘Britain: Power and the people: c1170 to the present day’ and ‘Britain: Migration, empires and the people: c790 to the present day’. The experience for most GCSE history students is mainly discussing the civil rights movement, the suffragettes and, of course, Nazi Germany. Hence every semi-literate GCSE student can march and scream ‘Racist!’ ‘Sexist!’ ‘Fascist!’ and ‘Nazi!’ But they couldn’t explain what events introduced freedom in Britain – and that’s the foundation of the problem.
Introducing a new history module which would teach events such as the Assize and Constitutions of Clarendon, Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus and the Bill of Rights, would better equip the public to defend their institutions, as well as recognise the faults thereof. It would mean that Kit Malthouse’s comments will keep being condemned, that people would understand their right to challenge the fines imposed by the police and resist any attempts made to remove any further freedoms. If the public had a strong knowledge of the liberty that they possess in law, they could point the government to where those liberties are, and then demand that they are respected.
This should be something an 80-seat-majority Conservative government should embrace. Conserving British institutions in an age of destruction, having a better-educated population, ensuring that future governments cannot seize control and rule by decree, and continuing to guarantee freedom for everyone should be the foundations of their conservatism.