George Walford: England, Land of the Free… Free What?

This is being written shortly before it is decided which party, or which combination of parties, shall have the job of guarding our freedom during the next five years. The winners will also have to decide how that splendid, banner-waving word is to be interpreted. Choices have to be made. You can’t have both unlimited freedom for people to stay out of jail and unlimited freedom for the police to put them in. You can’t have unlimited freedom for everybody to enjoy life and unlimited freedom to explode nuclear bombs.

The parties seldom admit this. Each of them declares itself in favour of freedom and each of them carefully leaves the term undefined. But we do not have to wait helplessly, finding out only from experience – probably bitter – what the candidates meant by what they said. Harold Walsby provided the key to the puzzle when he showed that over the series of major ideologies, and (not with complete precision, but in the main) also over the corresponding range of parties and movements, the valuation placed upon freedom in the economic / material sphere varies inversely as the valuation placed upon it in political / intellectual matters.

During the years of Labour government nationalisation was extended and other controls brought “private” enterprise increasingly under government control. Instead of leaving citizens to decide for themselves which services they wanted and could or could not afford the state took money from them under compulsion, providing standard services in return. In the economic field, in activities connected with material goods, and buying and selling, freedom of activity was increasingly restricted.

In the political / intellectual field, on the other hand, the tendency was to maintain or increase the freedom available. There was comparatively little attempt to prescribe what local governing bodies should or should not do, the teachers were largely left to decide what they should teach, the universities expanded enormously and freedom to publish, march, meet and demonstrate was preserved or extended.

Under the conservatives these tendencies have been reversed. Nationalised industries have been privatised and income tax reduced. Freedom for industrialists to act as they think best, and for people able to afford services to choose which they shall pay for has been increased.

But in intellectual / political matters the movement has been the other way. Severe cuts have been imposed on the universities and a compulsory syllabus announced for the schools. The right to demonstrate has been restricted, controls imposed on local government, the GLC abolished and even more rigorous controls announced for the future.

The conservatives tend to reduce freedom of action in the political / intellectual field and increase it in the economic / material. Labour tends to increase freedom of action in the political / intellectual field and reduce it in the economic / material. These tendencies have been consistent for as long as these movements have been operating and the evidence does not indicate a probable change in future. According to which party wins office we have to expect an increase of freedom in the one field and a reduction of it in the other. And the Alliance, standing between the Labour and Conservative parties, will display correspondingly modified tendencies in each of the two fields.

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Pearly Gate
British Television spares us the religious revivalism of the USA; what takes place there sounds like a circus with all restraints off. Oral Roberts announces God has said he (Oral, not God) will die if he doesn’t collect eight million dollars by a given date. Tammy Bakker, married preacher of the primitive virtues, gets caught in fun and games with his secretary; charges of blackmail fly. But Oral got his eight million dollars and Tammy has an audience of 14 million people and an annual income well over one hundred million dollars.

We can think of only one set-up that is stranger: the expectation by the (A- )SPGB that an overwhelming majority, in America as elsewhere, will desert this bubbling cauldron of delicious emotions to engage in the arid abstractions of “socialist understanding.”

from Ideological Commentary 28, July 1987.