Magazine article The Spectator

The Divine Right of Votes Which Threatens Our Freedoms

Magazine article The Spectator

The Divine Right of Votes Which Threatens Our Freedoms

Article excerpt

It says a lot about Britain's political arrangements that most of us go through life without having to doubt that we are living in a free society. Certainly that has been my good fortune to date. No government so far throughout my 73 years has forced me to do anything, or prevented me forcibly from doing anything, entirely against my will. This is not to say that everything the state has ordered me to do was exactly what I would have done on my own accord. It was not in accordance with my will, for example, to pay some 60 to 70 per cent of my by no means considerable income to Harold Wilson's Chancellor of the Exchequer, who wanted to hear my pips squeak. And had I been able to impose my will, instead of having the state's imposed on me, quite a number of other laws of the land would have been either strengthened or weakened. Even so I went along with them voluntarily. True, I would have been compelled to do so if I hadn't, but I didn't feel under duress or in any real sense unfree.

Even during the war, when our freedoms had been suspended for the duration, I do not recall feeling one jot less free than when they had been in full peacetime operation. Not waiting to be conscripted, I voluntarily joined up. In other words, my will and the state's coincided. So it was with pretty well the entire population, and even the conscientious objectors were not forced to fight against their will.

It could be objected, of course, that I would be writing somewhat differently had I not had the good fortune to be born in what used to be called the ruling class, and there is some truth in this. I imagine the picketing miners being charged by Mrs Thatcher's mounted police, for example, did feel somewhat coerced. Certainly the closure of the coal mines was not in accordance with their will, but their right to keep the pits open was not exactly an ancient right, or indeed a right at all. What they were about, therefore, was not so much the protection of an old freedom as the assertion of a new one - in effect a bid for trade union hegemony. That the bid failed must indeed have been profoundly frustrating, but I rather doubt if at the end of the day Mr Scargill and his militant miners felt any the less free.

In any case, by Mr Scargill's Marxist lights, the capitalist state was simply behaving as capitalist states have always behaved; as they are programmed to behave. Nothing new or shocking about that, only a continuation of a tradition going back far into the mists of time. It was the militant miners, therefore, who were trying to coerce the government, quite as much as the government trying to coerce the militant miners. Freedom was not the issue; power was the issue, and this was realised by both sides. If the militant miners had won, the working class would have become much more powerful, but by losing it did not become much less free, any more than the coal owners felt much less free in 1945 when the pits were nationalised by a Labour government. Such ups and downs in the class war have long been part of the customary democratic process, with the owners expecting to be better off under Conservative governments and the unions better off under Labour governments. This was legitimate majority rule, not illegitimate majority tyranny, and accepted as such by both sides.

This is what should worry us deeply about the possibility of a ban on fox-hunting: that such a ban would not be an act of legitimate majority rule, in the Whiggish tradition, but rather an act of illegitimate majority tyranny in the Jacobinical tradition. …

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