‘Freedom-loving Brits’? It's not that simple, Prime Minister | Julian Baggini

Why, if Britain is the great nation Boris Johnson says it is at every opportunity, has it handled the coronavirus pandemic so much worse than countries such as Germany and Italy? Like a job interviewee who “confesses” to be being “a bit of a perfectionist”, the prime minister’s answer to this question is a boast in thin disguise. “There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world,” Johnson told the House of Commons yesterday. “Our country is a freedom-loving country.”

Johnson portrayed this as a primal impulse that resides deep in the national psyche, saying he was “deeply, spiritually reluctant to make any of these impositions, or infringe anyone’s freedom”. When it comes to liberty, if nothing else, the UK is world-beating. “Virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country,” claimed the self-proclaimed leader of the free world.

This comforting myth says that our problem is simply that we love freedom too much, that our fatal weakness is also our greatest strength. It’s a narrative that is as reassuring as it is nonsensical.

Johnson is talking about freedom as though it meant nothing more than the absence of state power. This is the version of liberty widely promoted in the United States, where people seem to think that the opposite of freedom is government. This was the sentiment Ronald Reagan tapped into when he said in 1986, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

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But the freedom-loving Brits are not state-haters. On the contrary, to the extent that the UK has historically been a champion of freedom it has been because of its strong adherence to the rule of law. Our liberty is protected by the knowledge that no one is above the law, not even the government. Personal freedom is lowest in countries where the rule of law is weak, either because they are without functioning states or have authoritarian regimes.

However, by Johnson’s account, loving freedom makes the British less likely to follow the rule of law. “It is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary,” he said yesterday. Johnson is suggesting that Brits are not so much freedom-lovers as rule-breakers. This turns our traditional narrative on its head. It always used to be those anarchic Europeans, like the Italians and Spanish, who never stuck by the EU rules, which the UK honourably obeyed. Far from heaping praise on his fellow countrymen, Johnson is in effect telling them that they have a problem with playing fair.

Johnson is on surer ground if he is suggesting that the UK is less enamoured of state intervention than many of our European neighbours. But historically the light-touch British approach has defended the freedoms of the rich and powerful at the expense of those of the ordinary citizen. For example, restrictions on trade union rights makes companies freer to operate as they wish but it diminishes the freedom of employees to organise and obtain better pay and conditions. Limited regulation of housing increases the freedom of landowners, developers and landlords, but not that of tenants. Giving independent schools charitable status massively increases the freedom of rich parents to upgrade their children’s educations but it leaves the state sector weaker, diminishing the freedom of pupils denied the advantages of a fee-paying education.

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When freedom simply means the absence of the state, there are always trade-offs between liberty and security, individual freedom and public health. But when we also think of the freedom to eat, to work, to have an education, to determine your own future, the only trade-offs are between different kinds of freedom, or the freedoms of different groups of people. Make people freer to mingle and you decrease the real freedom of the old and vulnerable to live their lives in safety. Give businesses the right to demand their employees go back to their workplaces and you increase their freedom to trade but not the freedom of employees to protect themselves and their families. Withdraw state support for the furlough scheme and you may cut people free from the ties of government but leave them penniless and powerless.

Equating freedom with the absence of the state is an old conservative trick that suits only those who don’t need protecting. What we should be seeing in this pandemic is that freedom from constraint is empty if it leaves us unable to live safely. No truly liberty-loving nation would need persuading that the freedom to stay well and to earn a living requires both government action and the willingness of the population to follow the rules for the collective good.

• Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher



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