Saturday, June 15, 2013

On Liberty

It has to be admitted, there are very few of us who get worked up over a little monument sticking out of a field on the banks of the river Thames. Very, very, few of us. That this spot marks the beginning of the rule of law and freedom from arbitrary State tyranny is not a matter that impinges on the consciousness of the masses. Indeed, the monument was erected by the American Bar Association – our indigenous monument being contained in jokes and riddles. "Where did King John sign the Magna Carta?"

I've often imagined the showdown between the King and the Barons in some sort of Pythonesque script. Burly bearded landowners surrounding a tyrant and being as pleasant and civil as only the very well-armed can be, gently telling him to wind his fecking neck in. It was arguably one of the most important moments in Western history. For whilst Hobbes, Locke, Mill described, defended and proposed, these semi-literates actually acted. And King John didn't sign it "at the bottom" – he affixed his seal. Just to satisfy pub-quiz addicts....

The relationship between Government and the individual is the most important in our lives. For whilst our parents, teachers, partners may send us to bed without supper – and variations on the theme – the Government insists it is the possessor of all legitimate power – and by that mean naked force and violence. Only the Government can drag you from your sofa and throw you into its deepest dungeons and claim authority to do so.

And it claims the authority from us, The People. The odd flaw in that carefully woven lie is that, once in power, the Government can do whatever the hell it likes. Literally. There is nothing – apart from their threadbare consciences – to stop MP's passing a law tomorrow to have 1 in 10 people shot on sight. No court can prevent it, no Constitution exists against which the acts of Government can be matched and found wanting. The Barons cornered a King claiming such powers and took them away. We have allowed a Parliament to resurrect the Divine Right of Kings and cloth it in procedure and baubles, blinding us to our own needs for liberty and our fear of tyranny.

Which is why the monument at Runnymeade was erected by American lawyers. Americans get it – that Governments may be necessary, but they are never to be trusted. The whole edifice of the American constitutional arrangements are designed to limit Government and to draw the line in the sand that separates my life from their interference.

The British have never appreciated this. Even in the face of the most outrageous insults by Government – including detention without trial, secret courts and complicity in torture – we Brits bumble along persuading ourselves of the essential benevolence and broad incompetence of Government.

This is exemplified around the PRISM revelations (though I never forgot ECHELON...), with the sanguine "well, if you've got noting to hide..." argument so glibly rolling from so many tongues. It infuriates me, because our individual liberties, our private lives, should not have to be justified. My life is mine to dispose of, not the Governments. It is for the State to have an overwhelming need on the part of society to justify any intrusion, not us being compelled to think of reasons why the State should not poke about in our closets. Such is the dangerous British state of mind, that we elevate the State above the individual without so much as asking to check its credentials.

I write this on my sofa, my homicidal cat farting next to me and the sun pouring through the window. I await the opening of the local coffee shop, and then I will later spend the day with @fmsalexandra/The Editor in a sunny enclave. To you, this is the mundane, it hardly raises anything so grand as concepts of "liberty" and your relationship with the State.

But I spent most of my life waking up to bars, steel doors and having the minutiae of my life ordered by servants of the State. Liberties were taken. Violence was inflicted. My mail was censored, my phonecalls listened to, every piece of paper in my cell searched and read. Pulling back my foreskin – under threat of force - for some bureaucrat to check for contraband is as close and personal a relationship as you can get with Government power.

Those years of having any liberty denied and controlled, what little being dangled by petty minds, has given me a deep appreciation of both liberty and the relationship between the individual and the State. Which is why I am angry. Angry that most of us reduce Magna Carta to a general knowledge question, and shrug away the erosion of our privacy and liberty with a shocking indifference.

When I lead the prisoners union, I recall John Hirst – the blogger "jailhouselawyer" – dusting off Magna Carta in the face of the Governments refusal to address the prisoners votes judgement from the courts. Such was his fury and frustration that he resurrected the clause regarding any breach of Magna Carta – the right to wage "lawful rebellion". On my and the unions behalf, John declared legitimate war on the Government. It gave me a few sleepless nights – shades of the gallows before me for treason – but now I cannot help but wonder....

The time to challenge the States erosion of the sphere of private life is always here. But in these uncertain times, perhaps the time to assert our right as individuals in the face of Government intrusion is – now.


  1. Bang on..... It looks like prodigal Ben is back from his wilderness!!

  2. Yes, good stuff, but it seems to be all over bar the shouting. This week Al Gore is saying that the elements of the police state are all in place. The ABA celebrated the Magna Carta with a statue, but can’t do anything about gross violations of their fourth and first amendment rights allowing Prism. Meanwile, our scribblings here are already recorded.

    Nice shoutout to John Hirst btw.

  3. Splendid post Ben.

    A little quote by Ayn Rand from "Atlas Shrugged":

    "There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals. When there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws."

  4. Good post Ben.

    Is it a just a coincidence that ’On Liberty' is an anagram of 'No Liberty'?