Opinion: Just how free are we?

In print, on television and radio, online, in lecture theatres and in town squares up and down the country, we are seeing a resurgence of an ailing art; public debate is back, and this time it’s polemic. How to recalibrate capitalism in the wake of recession; how to ensure whatever emerges has less impact on the environment; how a lasting peace can be achieved in the Middle East; these issues and more are being pored over with a renewed vigour.

To that end we should be proud to live in a country that leaves us free to express our opinions; free to work, live and play howsoever it pleases us. Indeed, history’s narrative of the ‘noughties’ may well recount how the bastions of liberty and freedom defended themselves against the twin incursions of fundamentalism and indoctrination – a pitch battle between civilizations either side of a concrete divide separating us into good guys and bad.

Or will the students of 2050 read a different spiel?

In recent times the UK has seen a steady erosion of rights and liberties at home that would leave the likes of John Stuart Mill horrified. One day in the name of fighting crime, another day in that of stopping benefit fraud, or of preventing terrorism, initiative after Whitehall initiative is announced that appears to diminish our claim to being a truly free society.

Take your pick from the last few weeks alone. Be it the alleged complicity of British secret agents in the kidnapping and torture of civilians, the frequent use of extraordinary legal powers in monitoring citizens (invoked an alarming 10,288 times in five years according to figures obtained by Liberal Democrat MP Julia Goldsworthy), or the intention to track people’s conversations on social networking websites such as Facebook.

Freedom, as Mill would no doubt tell us, cannot be without its limits. In any society there are laws that permit us to exercise our liberty within boundaries constructed by common consent; and as the 20th-century US Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously wrote, “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” It’s just that the glut of recent government activity could be seen to represent the state bringing its nose ever closer to our everyday business, narrowing our freedom to swing our fist or simply to congregate and discuss the future.

Whilst every nation or society strikes its own balance between individual freedom and collective security, it falls upon the many to ensure that the few with power wield it to defend our freedoms, not trample upon them. It is this which feels as though it’s under attack – from a government whose intentions may be clean but whose actions serve to incrementally subordinate us.

So if the balance between liberty and authoritarianism feels as if it’s slipping towards the latter, what to do?

Firstly, those who believe it is need to check their rhetoric and ensure their message plays well to the movers and shakers in the corridors of power; talk of a police state and of Soviet tactics are unhelpful at best, hysterically devoid of context and proportion. After all, despite recent developments we do still live freer than so many people subject to tyranny across the globe.

Secondly, we need the right tools to enact our will, not just to articulate it. The challenge is for the protesters that gathered in London recent weeks, expressing unease and anger at the myriad failures of global governance, to seize this moment and form a sustained political force capable of delivering that which they stand for.

For even though we’re saddled with an electoral system so set against bringing about real change, at least we’re free, for now, to formulate, disseminate and gather support for progressive and liberal alternatives to the status quo – we must act now lest those freedoms are diminished yet further.

* Prateek Buch is a Liberal Democrat member in Epping Forest, and blogs at teekblog.blogspot.com.

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