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.

Wilson is also uneasy about the Civil War revolutionaries because their conception of liberty was more positive than negative. They come down, in short, on the wrong side of Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated polarity. Despite its anxieties, however, the book sees that, roughly speaking, negative liberty is favoured by the rich and positive liberty by the poor, who need a greater say in the affairs of state if they are to improve their condition. Negative liberty is precious, but it is also for those who can afford it. In classical republican style, freedom for the Levellers and Commonwealth men meant active participation in the life of the nation, rather than simply being freed from constraint. Wilson is by no means wholly allergic to communal ideas of liberty. In fact, he follows Quentin Skinner in claiming that negative freedom will remain precarious unless citizens have the power to hold rulers to account, which requires some more positive notion of political rights. He also sees the Civil War period as an invaluable infusion of republican notions of liberty into a native English legacy of property-based freedom.

All the same, Wilson also suspects the idea of positive liberty of being inherently paternalist, which is surely not the case. On this bogusly benign view, so he considers, men and women are seen as oblivious to their own interests, and must therefore be steered to enlightenment by subjecting themselves to a paternalist or autocratic state. This, to be sure, has represented a formidable menace to personal freedom all the way from Rousseau to Stalin; but it is not to be rejected on the spurious liberal grounds that nobody has the right to tell anyone else what to do. If the paternalism Wilson rightly rejects is arrogant and dogmatic, so is the assumption that nobody can ever set me straight. It is indeed not in my interests to consume three bottles of whisky a day, and I ought to be grateful to those who diplomatically whisper this truth in my ear, not self-righteously dismiss them as a bunch of condescending busybodies. Men and women, whether as individuals or in groups, are not always transparent to themselves, and to make such a claim is not necessarily to look askance at them from the superior perch of absolute knowledge. To educate is not always to indoctrinate. Marx was a fan of positive freedom, but he did not believe in the state, either paternalist or otherwise.

For some 18th-century thinkers, Britain and liberty were more or less synonymous. The narrative of the nation, and the history of progress, civility and prosperity as such, were one and the same. The country’s thriving commerce was seen as a by-product of its political freedom, an opinion unruffled by the fact that the great majority of its citizens enjoyed civil liberties but no political rights. Liberty meant liberty for an elite of propertied Protestants. There was no real freedom of the press. Individual freedom depended largely on the state deciding to stay its repressive hand. There were seasons of relative freedom and seasons of repression, in contrast to the Whiggish view that liberty, like toddlers or the national debt, just keeps on growing.

Yet while rhetorical in one sense, liberty was real enough in another. Wilson thinks the British populace really did enjoy a latitude that was remarkably rare at the time. It was, he concedes, to some extent a question of how people felt rather than how things actually were. Even so, Continental visitors to these shores were astonished by the climate of social and intellectual freedom, and this in a nation with the bloodiest legal code in Europe. ‘The country,’ Wilson writes, ‘was conspicuous for eccentrics, free-thinkers, free-talkers and the downright boorish.’ Yet he also believes that despite the candour, resilience and outspokenness of its people, liberty in Britain was an essentially conservative principle, used to elevate property and stifle demands for reform. Equipoise, then, is not always to be sniffed at, as this admirably judicious account makes clear.

By the close of the 18th century, political republicanism had migrated to newly independent America, while from the 1790s civic liberties in the metropolitan nation came under ferocious assault. There is a curiously cursory report on the monstrous police state which flourished in Britain at the time, as the book shifts rather too abruptly to that bloodless caricature of classical British liberty, Victorian economic individualism. We are then treated to a graphic account of the wholesale extinguishing of native British freedoms known as the First World War, involving as it did ‘arbitrary (governmental) powers that would have made the Stuarts blush’. State repression stretched beyond this into the class struggles of the interwar period, as the ancient law of sedition was brought back from the grave to censor and imprison Communists. The far right was allowed to hold mass meetings, while the far left was not. During the Second World War, a woman was interned for five months when the authorities discovered an entry in her diary reading ‘Destroy British Queen. Install Italian Queen.’ She turned out to be a beekeeper.

There is a sense in which this chequered historical tale is no more than a prologue to the present. Like all wise historians, Wilson understands that the past contains precious resources for the present and future. It is therefore advisable to move backwards into the future with your gaze fixed steadily on the past, rather than hurtle headlong into whatever lies ahead of us. Those who seek to abolish the past – to draw a line in front of it and move on, as the current bone-headed mantra has it – tend to end up destroying a lot more than that. ‘New, new, new; everything is new,’ Tony Blair once rhapsodised. One wonders whether he had bird flu in mind as well as child welfare credits.

In our own day, so the book reports, social surveys reveal a diminished faith in freedom among an overwhelming majority of British citizens, an alarming readiness to trade liberty for security, and growing support for torture. Indeed, Wilson believes that there is now a ‘vertiginous fear of freedom’ abroad, not just a cavalier indifference to it. There is, he thinks, no positive vision of liberty in our century, beyond a desire for the state to cease its meddling. Negative freedom and the authoritarian state have not turned out to be the opposites that classical liberal theory imagined. On the contrary, the more you let possessive individualism rip, the more repressive a power you need to mop up the disruptive consequences. This was the lesson of Thatcher, as it is of New Labour. The so-called war on terror has compounded the contradiction, since, in Blair’s words: ‘It is all too easy for us to respond to terror in a way which undermines commitment to our most deeply held values and convictions.’ Unfortunately, it was Cherie, not Tony, who was speaking.

What Price Liberty? concludes with a richly suggestive meditation on the stand-off between freedom and multicultural sensitivities. One of the most potent threats to freedom now springs from a sense of collective grievance. At the same time, the book is clear that requiring Muslims to sign up for Enlightenment values is just as illiberal as seeking to ban films you haven’t seen because they are rumoured to portray your social group in a less than ideal light. Osama bin Laden is not likely to be persuaded by the likes of Richard Dawkins, and there are some reputable as well as discreditable reasons why he would not be. Moreover, if these are the only alternatives we have to choose between, we are most certainly in big trouble. Liberty and security, Wilson rightly points out, are not opposites to be traded off against each other. Liberty needs a firmly based authority to repel those out to destroy it, and that authority can only be the product of a collective free will. In this sense, one might claim, the reconciliation of these two political goods is known as democracy.

One of the most admirable aspects of What Price Liberty? is its refusal to play the Whiggish game. It is this which sets it apart from Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great and A.C. Grayling’s Towards the Light. Without even setting out to do so, Wilson’s book refutes the shop-soiled myth that freedom, having struggled bravely out of the Dark Ages into the bracing air of Western Enlightenment, is now at risk of having its stately march halted by new forms of benightedness creeping in mostly from the East. This reductively linear narrative, with its buoyant faith in universal reason and progress, makes vulgar Marxism look positively sophisticated.

There is, however, no such continuity in British or Western history. As this book demonstrates, liberties wax and wane, one person’s freedom is another’s restraint, political rights may be cancelled by economic ones, what you see as an inalienable right I view as outrageous licence, and civilisation and barbarism march hand-in-hand. Liberal society is one long, interminable wrangle, so that potentially irresolvable conflicts are one of the prices it pays for its pluralism. One may contrast this picture with Grayling’s Towards the Light, which begins with a perfunctory, one-paragraph-long nod to such occasional blemishes on Western freedom as wars and colonialism, and then proceeds to recount a rosy, wonderfully simple-minded version of modern Western history as ‘a long, tough, ultimately (but perhaps only temporarily?) successful struggle or interrelated set of struggles, aimed at the liberation of the individual’.[*] In this ludicrous Just-So story, liberty was steadily on the increase ‘approximately between the years 1500 and 2000, by which latter time the expansion had ceased and contraction had begun’. This is only a step up from arguing that the Renaissance ended on 3 March 1612, or that modernism got off the ground one rainy September afternoon in 1881. It is notable how rigidly schematic the advocates of plurality, diversity and uniqueness can turn out to be.

It is not that Grayling’s book overlooks the ferocious assaults on freedom which litter our past. It is just that it assumes there is a single, unambiguous good known as freedom, as self-identical and transhistorical as Hegel’s Geist; that it comes in one readily identifiable form; and that all its enemies are external ones, its chief antagonist today being Islamic terrorism. The intellectual history of late modernity, from Marx and Nietzsche to Gramsci and Freud, is one long rebuttal of this secretly consoling case. Ben Wilson understands, as Grayling appears not to, that liberal freedom is not only besieged by foreign foes but also afflicted by grievous internal contradictions. The self-realisation of some is the exploitation of others, so that truly self-consistent liberals, the Thomas Manns and E.M Forsters of this world, must acknowledge the tainted roots of their own liberties. Besides, it is implausible to imagine in a post-Freudian age that the obstacles to our self-realisation are all conveniently on the outside. If they were simply that, we might well have overcome them by now. Grayling works by an old-fashioned model of expression versus repression; but William Blake knew that desire and the Law are secretly in cahoots – that the worm is always already secreted in the bud, that part of what we desire is our own subjugation, and that there is something flawed at the heart of our drive to self-fulfilment which can cause it to fester or go awry. The most arduous form of emancipation is self-emancipation. No political liberty will truly thrive without it, but the barriers in its path are even more formidable than Special Powers acts. In addition to this, liberals and libertarians must confront the unpalatable truth that oppressive political powers flourish by enlisting our impulse to freedom and self-development rather than by brutally extinguishing it.

Liberals who are courageous and clear-sighted enough to turn their liberal gaze on their own position – those, in other words, who are too liberal to rest content with liberalism – find themselves faced with a choice. They can, like Mann and Forster, continue to keep the faith in an ironic awareness of its partly disreputable foundations; or they can recognise that freedom will never cease to be dogged by internal contradictions as long as it is largely defined in free-market, possessive individualist terms. At this point, they may turn their faces to socialism. Socialism is among other things an attempt to extend the ancient republican virtues of civic participation from the political to the social and economic spheres. In pursuing this project, however, it cannot dispense with the vital notion of negative liberty. To that extent, the stout-hearted English yeoman turns out to be right: one of the most priceless of all liberties is just being bloody well left alone.

[*] 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).