Leave me alone

Terry Eagleton

  • What Price Liberty? How Freedom Was Won and Is Being Lost by Ben Wilson
    Faber, 480 pp, £14.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 23594 0

David Hume once remarked that the English had the least national character of any people in the universe. Perhaps this was a cunning Scottish put-down, since character is just what the English pride themselves on. They may not bestride the world in intellect, cuisine or emotional intimacy, but these fancy pursuits can be left to foreigners, and don’t count for much compared to their own moral robustness. At the core of this moral character lies the spirit of liberty: liberty not as the lawlessness of the anarchic French or the self-realising Geist of the high-minded Germans, but liberty as the right to be cussedly, bloody-mindedly oneself. ‘John is John,’ as Tony Blair wryly murmured of John Prescott when he punched a demonstrator, suggests something of this tautological quality.

This brand of liberty is not in principle opposed to authority, not least because without its minatory presence it would have nothing to grumble about. Even so, it keeps a wary eye on the potential insolence of power. It is peaceable but nonconformist. English freedom consists in the right to be as daft and dotty as you want. The Irish may wear the green, but the English wear red noses. They do so as a degenerate, depoliticised version of what Ben Wilson describes in this book as ‘the stubbornly independent little man … rebellious peasants, Puritans, Cromwell’s yeomen, Wilkesite rioters, Paineite radicals and trade unionists’.

What Price Liberty? is an erudite, eminently readable account of British liberties from the Stuart monarchy to multiculturalism, written in the conviction that as a society we have ‘lost the means to talk about liberty’ and need urgently to rediscover it. Liberty in the 17th century was thought to be enshrined in unwritten laws more ancient than the monarchy, and thus capable of being turned against regal arrogance. Charles I could do pretty much as he liked as long as he covered his back by invoking the national interest, a ruse that might strike Britons today as vaguely familiar. But the common law, so the argument ran, had no creator, and could not be challenged by royal edict. At the core of the freedoms it protected lay the absolute security of property, a right which was also thought to pre-date the monarchy. Freedom, so the myth had it, was older than autocracy, which meant the latter could always be portrayed as an upstart and usurper. The robber barons and patrician grandees had plundered us of rights established by the Anglo-Saxons.

Liberty had traditionally meant not personal freedom, but freedom for certain privileged social groups – in effect, the licence of the lawless aristocrat. From Lord Byron to Oscar Wilde, the aristocrat and the anarchist have always been secret bedfellows. If the English love a character, they also love a lord, which is one reason Byron (who was literally an aristocrat) and Wilde (who was spiritually one) are held in such high esteem. It was this genteel monopoly of freedom that popular notions of collective liberty set out to challenge. Wilson, as befits a contemporary liberal, is a mite nervous of the more extravagant libertarian visions of the Civil War. ‘The moderate path between authority and freedom – the true meaning of liberty,’ he tells us rather sanctimoniously, ‘had not yet been discovered: that was the achievement of enlightened modern men [sic].’ When in doubt, the English think of an equipoise. (One name for this interplay of order and freedom, incidentally, is that most ‘natural’ of English metrical units, the iambic pentameter, which combines flexibility and regularity in equal measure. There is a great deal of ideology in the heroic couplet.) Those who believe, astonishingly, that middle ways are always to be preferred (what is the middle way between tax havens and coughing up, or Nazis and Jews?) should recall that the British taste for compromise is itself among other things the fruit of a bloody sectarian conflict in the 17th century about which there was nothing at all middling or moderate. ‘Hotheaded’ is a recurrent adjective in this book; but my hothead is your man of principle, just as your extremist is my woman of conviction. It is odd that a liberal should fail to recognise this.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggle for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West (Bloomsbury, 352 pp., £8.99, September 2008, 978 0 7475 9299 0).