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Where do you think we are on the freedom spectrum?


THERE is no such thing as perfect freedom, nor total tyranny. All nations and people operate on a spectrum. Neither Ayn Rand’s world nor Panem, of Hunger Games fame, have ever existed outside the test tube and in my view that’s a good thing. 

To an extent, where you believe yourself to be on the freedom spectrum is a state of mind. But ask yourselves: are we as free as a decade ago, or perhaps a generation ago? And where do we think we are heading?

We can probably agree that post-war East Germany was as close to a totalitarian state as modern Europe has experienced. But there were moments of lightness and jollity and not all were caged all the time.  

In the spellbinding film Ballon, about a family from East Berlin trying to escape to the West, one is struck by the incidentals of family life: fun, film and spontaneity from the gaze of the Stasi. Trips to the theatre, meals out (even if East German dumpling was rather grim), outings to the countryside. Even there at times there was a sense of normality and personal freedom. 

The viewer is also struck that both the potential escapers and the East German State, the Stasi in particular, were somewhat amateurish. The Stasi were ruthless and wicked for sure, but their reach was far from total and they suffered from a bureaucratic inefficiency that is so often the hallmark of controlled states. 

They did possess the power of massive sanction, often brutal, but thankfully it was not matched with the current technological power of digital surveillance, algorithms and control. Theirs was a world of informants and paper and pen. 

We can also agree that until recently Britain was at the freer end of the spectrum, as was much of the western world. Of course a successful society must be bound by sane but minimal rules, conventions and decency. Respect for the other, if you like. 

We have been blessed in this land for generations with its generally fairly light government, and from that civil society has flowed. It wasn’t for nothing that the leftist historian AJP Taylor was able to write in his 1965 English History: ‘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.’

It prompts the question: how free Britain is today? Do Taylor’s comments still hold? The starting point must be that while we are virtually all much more affluent as a result of technological and productivity advance, we are much less free than we were when Taylor wrote and indeed than even a decade ago.

At one important level we do remain free as there is the opportunity to ‘kick the government out’ every five years at least. But that freedom is greatly dimmed if all the main parties broadly adopt the same policy stances and philosophies regardless of the spectrum of opinion in society. 

At many other levels that freedom is being greatly eroded, and it is far from clear that this is simply a temporary Covid-induced phenomenon. Even before lockdown there were worrying signs on the entire freedom spectrum from economic to political to social. Here are a few. 

Economically, personal freedom has been under sustained attack for a generation with matters deteriorating sharply over the last decade both in terms of the quantum of state activity, tax and complexity of Government action. It is well documented that we are now the most heavily taxed in seventy years. Seventy. Worse, the state now accounts for over half the output of the land. In Scotland, the North East and Wales it is closer to six pounds in ten. 

Further, the State’s method of extraction is desperately complex. Britain’s tax code is the most complex in the world. The Inland Revenue itself is not quite sure how long its rules are but at an estimated 17,000 pages, and doubling every generation, the UK tax code is four times the length of the Harry Potter series. This complexity simply is destructive and distorting. 

To look at freedom through from an economic lens is one-dimensional. The State’s reach is much greater than that. The State badgers, bullies and dictates in many other ways, and through measures unthought-of a generation ago. Thus the ability to be free from excessive regulation is another key sphere. The balance here is subjective, but in effect regulation is shorthand for enforcement and ensuring something is done in a certain way: the way the State decrees, not the company or individual. Here the balance has moved overwhelmingly from the individual to the State in almost every aspect.  

Until recently it would have been unthinkable, for example, for the State to propose a blanket ban on the combustion engine or type of boiler, let alone the composition of a company board by sex, or a league table of gender and ethnicity pay or even the type of food you eat. No aspect of our society has been too small to micromanage. This is a major attack on personal freedom and ability of the individual to act.

Then there is surveillance. While China is in a league of its own with the greatest number of CCTV cameras per head of population in the world, the UK lamentably comes third, behind ‘the land of the free’, the US. Britain has 618 cameras per 10,000 of population, thirty times more than France at 26 per 10,000. Why do we need so many? Why do ‘they’ trust us so little?

Next there is freedom of speech, the very bedrock of democracy. Britain has been famed for its tolerance of difference until recently. While online there remains relative freedom to argue that the moon is made of green cheese, increasingly debate is closed down and re-written on TV and the mainstream press, while during the pandemic we have seen growing control of social media by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Diversity of opinion increasingly means you can say what you like but only within a limited range. Question the current orthodoxy on the great issues of diversity, climate, culture and you will find restrictions appearing, including being no-platformed.

Thus the political discourse may appear robust and at times aggressive but the debate is framed in narrow terms with the mainstream media selecting the players. So it’s Greenpeace, Rowntree Foundation and the ‘highly respected’ Institute of Fiscal Studies (respected by whom exactly?) all parroting from a restricted script. 

As with the Brexit debate, a decadent establishment tries to imagine, as it sees it, a world without division or contest. Its mouthpieces say it’s all agreed on climate, equality, egalitarianism and diversity. But it isn’t agreed any more than they thought UK membership of the EU was; to them it was such a self-evident truth with alternative views mocked. They misread the tea leaves on Brexit and they are doing so again, I believe catastrophically.

As an example, although the questionable quest for net zero will result in every area of life being overturned, the BBC will not entertain debate on the subject. Instead it helps nudge individuals to its perspective through the moral equivalent of product placement. Historically a sitcom might have had a bottle of Smirnoff placed on the side table as a nudge, now the stars tuck into delicious vegan burgers decrying the Luddite who still likes a rare steak. 

Then there is Covid-19. Britain, or England to be precise, has been slightly more liberal than much (though not all) of Europe and we must be thankful for that, but even here we have accepted huge intrusion in personal life. No mainstream analysis or debate of the costs and benefits of lockdown policy has been tolerated, with highly selective media coverage, policed by Ofcom, blackballing dissent. 

In Scotland it is much worse and this propaganda is making a good proportion of the population feirt. Schools in Scotland are routinely closed, despite the negligible health risk to children, without any respect for the severe social risk from lockdown, masks must be worn, Covid passes flashed. There is even a law as to how many pall-bearers are allowed at a funeral.

Britain has been a beacon of relative freedom and liberty for many generations. Perhaps this makes us complacent. I don’t know where you think we stand on the freedom spectrum but to my mind the lights are going out on our ancient freedoms and liberties in so many spheres: economic, regulatory, freedom of speech, scientific debate and implementation. 

The history of Europe is littered with civilised societies suddenly losing their freedoms, often in dark ways. It is critical that we do not cross that Rubicon and ensure those hard-won liberties fought for over generations are not displaced by a narrow, rigid, highly controlling and alien philosophy as currently appears to be the case. To my mind the paramount challenge is the re-establishment of all our freedoms and the call of the ancient prayer that ‘under our servant Elizabeth, we are quietly governed’. 

This first appeared in Brexit Watch on November 25, 2021, and is republished by kind permission.

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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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