Abstract painting of subject, generated by DALL-E 2

Gordon's subtle corruption of our freedom

04 Jul 2007 - Bruno Prior

There are many things in Gordon Brown's statement of constitutional issues to be developed by his Government, The Governance of Britain, that are more dangerous than the flying of the Union Flag. For instance, take the statement that one of the ideas "at the heart of British citizenship" is "that there is an appropriate balance to be drawn between the individual’s right to freedom and the collective good of all" (para 204, p.60). At first glance, it doesn't sound controversial. Of course we do not have complete freedom to do what we like, and must constrain our behaviour to avoid harm to others. As Justice William O. Douglas put it: "My freedom to move my fist must be limited by the proximity of your chin."

But this statement subtly extends that consideration in a way that has significant ramifications. It is not harm to another that is the constraint in Gordon's scheme, but "the collective good of all". This offers much more scope for governments to decide that freedoms may be limited for the "general good". In fact, one would find that all authoritarian and totalitarian governments would argue that their measures had been justified because they were in the interests of the "collective good".

There is a long tradition of debate on this issue, and it will no doubt continue for a good deal longer. But Gordon is objectively wrong on one aspect - this is not an idea "at the heart of British citizenship". At the most, the question of whether the rights of the individual supersede those of the collective remains unresolved in Britain. I would argue further than that - that Gordon's approach is an (admittedly, well-established) European cuckoo in the British nest; an attempt to shoehorn continental, Rousseauian and Napoleonic collectivism, into British Lockean, common-law, Enlightenment individualism.

We should not conceed this starting-point to Gordon. If we do, it is just a question of the degree of state intervention that is justified in the collective interest, a subjectivity that will always be abused by governments wanting to inflict their views on us. We must argue over the principle, not the detail. Or we end up in the position of the attractive girl propositioned by George Bernard Shaw to sleep with him for a million pounds, who, upon indicating that she might, was asked if she would sleep with him for five pounds. Offended, she objected "Sir, what kind of woman do you think I am?" Shaw replied, "Madam, we have already established what kind of woman you are. Now all we have to do is haggle over the price."

Britannia is not that kind of woman, I hope.

Organisations: UK No. 10

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