Britain: Land of Liberty No More
Liberalism was born here. But its values are now under attack.
By Ian Dunt
On March 13, grieving women congregated in Clapham Common, an affluent and leafy part of London, at a vigil for 33-year-old Sarah Everard, who had recently been kidnapped from the area and murdered—a case in which a police officer is the chief suspect. Despite Covid restrictions, hundreds attended, in part to remember Everard, in part to protest male violence. They were quiet, somber, many crying. But the police closed in, scuffling with mourners, throwing women to the ground, handcuffing them, forcing them into vans.
Across the political spectrum, outrage followed. This seemed to be a moment of truth, proving that the police could not be trusted with expanded powers. Yet just two days later, Parliament was debating a new law-and-order bill, which would increase the authorities’ ability to restrict protest, establishing those powers indefinitely, irrespective of the pandemic. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority means it is almost certain to become law.
Under the bill, if the police believe the noise of a protest “may result in serious disruption,” or that a single passer-by could be caused “serious unease, alarm or distress,” they may restrict the event, controlling where demonstrators go, how many attend, and their volume. Anyone breaking the rules could be prosecuted, even if ignorant of the restrictions. And if these powers prove insufficient, the government could unilaterally change the legal meaning of “serious disruption” with almost no parliamentary scrutiny, effectively by edict.
Protest is not all that has come under threat in recent years in Britain. It’s also free speech, Parliament’s power, and the independence of the judiciary. The slow erosion of liberal rights in one of the countries that created liberalism has gone on for years here. Yet the situation is worsening under Johnson. He projects an image of old-fashioned bumbling bonhomie that has seduced many in England and abroad. But once you pass the ruffled hair and mock-bafflement, you find an appetite for expanding executive power.
Those who established British liberalism and then exported it would have recognized what we are seeing. It is a similar struggle: the right to stand up to government, the right to free expression, the need for a separation of powers, the primacy of the individual.
These ideas rose up during the English Civil War in the 1640s, under a radical Puritan group called the Levellers. They had fought with Parliament against the king, but the war unleashed a degree of freedom that many lawmakers were uncomfortable with, so Parliament tried to impose censorship.
“Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” the poet John Milton retorted in his pamphlet Areopagitica, one of the world’s first defenses of free speech. “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.”
Under multiple waves of repression, the Levellers expanded their sense of freedom from that of worship and speech to something broader. “To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any,” the scathing pamphleteer Richard Overton wrote from his prison cell in “An Arrow Against All Tyrants” (1646). “No man has power over my rights and liberties and I over no man’s.”
These ideas bubbled away in radical England until the Glorious Revolution in 1688, which saw the ouster of a monarch, and led to greater power for Parliament. In its aftermath, the philosopher John Locke started to formulate proto-liberal ideas into sophisticated political theory. Governments, he concluded, were only legitimate insofar as they protected individual liberties.
The state had to be split into a legislative and executive power so that the government could be independently assessed for whether it abided by the law. Legislative power was consequently above executive power. The legislature was Parliament and the executive was the government. This idea of the separation of powers soon evolved to include the judiciary.
It was up to individuals, not governments, to decide what was legitimate. The moment a government stepped outside its bounds, individuals had the right of revolution. Locke’s ideas swept the world, and had a pivotal role in the foundation of the United States and its Constitution.
In 1859, the British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill processed these ideas into modern liberalism, in the book On Liberty:1 “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
The harm principle had a high threshold, especially when it came to free speech. “An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor,” they said, “ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer.” In other words, you needed to believe that an individual was about to be immediately physically harmed if you wanted to censor someone.
There are many elements to liberalism—it is a boisterous, bulging, infinitely evolving and multifaceted set of ideals. But these were the core propositions, the foundation stones, laid in England: the freedom of the individual and the restraint of power.
In the modern era, British politicians have paid lip service to these ideals. But in day-to-day policymaking, they are routinely ignored.
In 1986, the Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, passed the Public Order Act, which banned “threatening, abusive or insulting words” or “disorderly behavior” that might cause a passer-by “harassment, alarm or distress.”
The key element was its subjectivity: It handed the police the discretionary power to arrest based on what they suspected might “alarm” people. Taylor and Mill’s insistence on physical harm had been reduced to emotional harm—a distortion now shared by the identity-politics left.
When it comes to free speech, libel laws in Britain already placed the burden of proof on the defendant, making it easy for the rich and powerful to close down critical coverage. Additionally, well-meaning hate-speech legislation allows the police to take excessive measures. Racist or derogatory language, which should be dealt with in the court of public opinion, is now often investigated. In February, officers in Liverpool even displayed a billboard with the slogan “Being Offensive is an Offence.” (They later apologized; being offensive is not a crime.)
Back in 2005, the Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, extended restrictions further than Thatcher, with the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. This curtailed the right to demonstrate within 1 kilometer of Parliament, with campaigners forced to give written notification to the police in advance. In December of that year, Maya Evans became the first person convicted under the act, when she read out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq without police authorization.
Key parts of the bill, and some parts of the Public Order Act, were repealed during a brief moment of respect for civil liberties after the third-party centrists, the Liberal Democrats, formed a coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010. But the Liberal Democrats are now long gone, and restrictions on protests near Parliament are back.
The policing bill authorizes restrictions if a demonstration may result in “serious disruption to the activities of an organization”—a provision that plainly applies to protests outside Parliament.
“My office looks onto Parliament Square, and I have long complained about the endless demonstrations that take place,” the Conservative politician David Amess said during the parliamentary debate. “It is very difficult to work because of the noise, with drums, horns and loudspeakers. ... Our work should not be disrupted.”
Under Johnson, the separation of powers has also come under attack. The prime minister unlawfully suspended Parliament for a brief spell in 2019. And his government will soon act against judicial review, the mechanism that allows individuals to challenge in court the decision-making of public bodies.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, who introduced the law-and-order bill, has launched broadsides against the judiciary as “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers.” The Lord Chief Justice—the head of the judiciary in England and Wales—branded this a “general attack on the legal profession” that “undermines the rule of law.”
At one moment in the policing-bill debate, a Conservative member of Parliament actually cited Mill himself. “A political philosophy that has always chimed with me is that of John Stuart Mill,” Andrea Leadsom said. “In setting out to describe the parameters of individual freedom, he said that we should all be free to do exactly as we like, provided that we are not impeding someone else’s freedom to do exactly as they like.”
In reality, Mill and Taylor’s philosophy was not about everyone doing exactly as they liked. That is impossible because society is composed of competing rights. It was a system to establish the threshold at which you could interfere with individual freedom. And that threshold was set very high indeed.
Either Leadsom had not read On Liberty or she had not understood it, for she seemed to believe that it authorized the government to impose whatever draconian measures it liked if an action might impact someone else. Mill would have buried his head in his hands.
The culture that claims to worship his name has abandoned his principles. Slowly but surely, Britain is turning its back on its liberal heritage.
Ian Dunt, editor-at-large of Politics.co.uk, is the author of How to Be a Liberal: The Story of Liberalism and the Fight for its Life.
I have conducted extensive research into the authorship of On Liberty, which has always been published in the name of John Stuart Mill alone. However, his repeated insistence was that the book derived from a writing collaboration with Harriet Taylor Mill, his wife. For that reason, I have chosen to cite it here as a co-authored book, in reality if not in formal attribution.