It may have taken until 1928 for full adult suffrage of English men and women to arrive, but the essential sentiments which feed the idea of democracy – that human beings are morally equal and enjoy autonomy as individuals and a natural resentment of privilege and inequality – are ancient in England.
If there is one outstanding trait in English political history it is probably the desire for personal freedom. This might seem odd to the modern Englishman who sees the large majority of his country men and women consistently welcoming the idea of the most intrusive forms of ID cards and who stand by dumbly as many of the age-old and ineffably hard-won rights which protect the individual, such as the abridgement of jury trial and the right to silence, being swept away by modern governments. But it was not always so and that “always so” was not so long ago. The great Austrian political and economic thinker Friedrich Hayek put it forcefully during the Second World War:
“It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that only in English society, and those societies deriving from it, is the notion of individual liberty built into the social fabric. The English have been free not primarily because of legal rights, but because it is their evolved social nature. They accept liberty because it seems natural to them.” (The road to Serfdom – chapter Material conditions and ideal ends)
In short, individual liberty has been and is part of being English and part of England. It would be going too far to claim that the English masses have ever had any highly developed sense of liberal with a small ‘l’ sentiments, but throughout English history there has been both a widespread resentment of interference, either public or private, in the private life of English men and women and an acute awareness that privilege was more often than not unearned and frequently cruelly used to oppress the poor.
Most importantly, over the centuries the elite gradually adopted the ideal of personal freedom into their ideology. Here is the elder Pitt speaking on the notion that the idea that an Englishman’s home:
The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow though it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter! – All his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement! (Quoted in Lord Brougham’s Statesmen in the time of George III)
The desire for liberty and a freeman’s due is seen in the constant demand by mediaeval towns for charters which would free them from aspects of royal control, most particularly taxation. In some respects it helped fuel the barons’ demand for Magna Carta. It drove the Peasant’s Revolt. It provided the emotional engine for the decline of serfdom once circumstances were propitious after the Black Death.
The Levellers made it their ideological centrepiece in the 1640s, their leader, John Lilburne, revelling in the name of “Freeborn John”. “Wilkes and Liberty” was the mob’s popular cry in that most aristocratic of centuries, the eighteenth. The Chartists held tight to the ideal in the nineteenth.
The idea that liberty was part of the birthright of the English survived until after the Second World war. Indeed, the English remained in their daily lives, once the wartime social controls such as rationing were removed, very free from until the 1960s. Apart from the laws of libel, slander, obscenity and the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship of the theatre, there were no legal bars to what might be said or written. The concept of “hate crimes” was unknown. Employers might employ who they chose; those providing goods and services whom they would serve. The ideas which we now call political correctness had no hold on any but small groups of people who were at best considered eccentric and at worst fanatics.
That precious natural liberty began to be eroded in the 1960s. The mass immigration of the post-war years provided the excuse to pass Race Relations Acts (RRAs) of increasing severity in 1965, the second in 1968 and the third in 1976. The passing of 1965 RRA provided the breach in the dyke of English liberty. Through it climbed the gays and feminists to obtain, sooner or later, legal protections from equal opportunities legislation. From that has grown the immense state apparatus – all public bodies have to by law preach the political correct gospel – of enforced “equality” (in reality the granting of privileges to those approved of by the politically correct) which binds us today.
In 1972 a further lance was driven into the side of English liberty with the Heath Government’s abduction of British sovereignty as he happily gave it to what is today the European Union (EU). This has destroyed the ability of electors to hold governments to account because the British mainstream political class overwhelmingly supports British membership of the EU. That institution constantly thrusts on Britain ideas which are wholly at odds with England’s traditions of freedom, for example the judicial abomination which is the European Arrest Warrant, a legal device which allows any person to be extradited from Britain to another EU state without any meaningful test of the evidence against them.
Come the 1980s and a more diffuse and slippery weapon to undermine English freedom was introduced by Margaret Thatcher. This was a fanatic ideological commitment to laissez fair economics at home and abroad which lingers to this day. What became known as globalisation destroyed employment in Britain, especially mining and manufacturing, and provided the excuse for another great flood of immigrants from the third world. The institutionalisation of mass unemployment (the real figure has been in the millions since the late seventies, much of it disguised as long-term sickness, a device instituted by Thatcher when the employment figure soared to over three million and cynically continued by all governments since). The mass unemployment made people dependent on the state at a level never previously seen and the increase in immigration both increased the competition for work and drove the social fracture already made in the priceless homogeneity of the country massively wider.
The final nail (to date) in the coffin of English freedom is the devolution settlement which granted power to parliaments or assemblies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales whilst denying England any such privilege. The English were left with no political voice , while watching vast amounts of English taxpayers’ money being shipped to the Celtic Fringe (around £16 billion pa at present) and MPs from non-English seats making laws for England which would not apply in their own constituencies.
The upshot of sixty years of gradual squeezing of English freedoms is that an English man or woman may no longer say what they thing about race, immigration, sexual equality or sexual predilection without at least risking the loss of their employment and quite possibly being subject to criminal prosecution; employers live in fear of any member of an ethnic minority, woman or gay suing for sexual or racial discrimination; political correctness is the watchword of anyone in public life and history has become next to dead as a meaningful subject in English schools because all the parts which would embarrass immigrants or make them feel excluded from “our island story” have been excised from the curriculum.
That is the sad state of the once free-born Englishman. Is he gone for ever? Not yet, but in another generation or two he probably will be lost forever. We can revive the mentality provided we act now. The first necessity is to leave the EU and throw off any other treaty restraints which undermine democratic control. After that the stripping out of political correctness from our legal system and institutions can begin; mass immigration be ended; a judicious protection for vital industries introduced and the pandering to minorities cease. That will provide the soil in which English freedom can revive.