Conservatives must defend liberty



President Reagan famously remarked that the most chilling words in the English language were, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. I was broadly in favour of the lockdown measures at the beginning of this year, but now that they have turned us into a nation of hypochondriacs, glaring unforgivingly at anyone who coughs, judgementally tutting at whoever does not wear a mask, I have found myself thinking about President Reagan’s comment more and more. 

Notions of abstract liberty and the right to behave however we please, free from obstruction, have never really taken root in the British political imaginary; we are far too obsessed with fair play, and common sense. What we have always been keenly aware of, is the temptation of those who govern us to infringe on those liberties that do exist. 

The old proverb, “an Englishmen’s home is his castle”, has been fundamentally compromised by the government’s latest proclamation that there can be no more than six people in a private residence for social gatherings. Of course, this ancient liberty has been long eroded, and any appeals to Englishness are dismissed as racist or parochial, but the idea that the government can reach behind the front door of our private residence has always given us cause to recoil. 

Sir Roger Scruton argued that the virtue of private properties is the ability it gave us to both close a door on the outside world, and in doing so, choose what parts of that world we invited in. In other words, it gave us a freedom we had never had before, and it levelled an obligation squarely at the State to enshrine and protect this freedom. The dereliction of duty on the government’s behalf in this matter should not – and will not – be forgotten. 

And what of public gatherings? The government’s existing measures – that groups of over 30 people can be broken up by the police – have hardly been enforced in the last few weeks, and where they have it has been inconsistent and in discrimination, ironically enough in the name of anti-racism. The inequality before the law evidences another drastic violation of the British inheritance that found its genesis, if not its maturity, in 1215 – but then, perhaps it should come as no surprise that this government is prepared to break the law. 

As I say, I’m not one for defending abstract ‘freedoms’ severed from their historical inheritance, but the Human Right to free association is one exception to this self-imposed rule. The reason is, this Right was actually discovered through long-standing tensions between the people and their governors, and is not technically a freedom in itself, but rather a guarantor of other freedoms that arise from it – put simply, your ‘freedom’ to associate (and disassociate) with whoever you wish, provides you with both the capacity to realise ‘concrete’ freedoms (freedom of speech and conscience, for instance), and a ‘shield’ placed between you and government. 

These ‘little platoons’, as Edmund Burke called them, provide a strong and reliable bulwark between you and the government, by lifting away your reliance on the State to provide your life with meaning. Now, we see this significant and historic liberty compromised by the untrammelled power of the State’s capacity to decide which associations are, and are not, legitimate. It also remains to be seen if this power will be wielded equally, or arbitrarily. 

The problem with crises is they allow the introduction of heretofore unthought-of measures, and the government can become intoxicated with the power these measures grant it. As the crisis passes away, government will search for another justification to their continuation, until they have become so commonplace, they will not need one. The coronavirus lockdown was justified to prevent the NHS from collapsing – note that this justification has disappeared from the narrative. 

Conservatives have a deep suspicion of government, but they have a deeper suspicion of chaos; but the worst of both worlds is chaotic government.

Jake Scott is the Editor of The Mallard, and a PhD researcher in political theory at the University of Birmingham. Follow him on twitter: @J_Scott_95