Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 12 (March 1, 1940)

This Freedom

page 22

This Freedom

“Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like a thunder-storm against the wind.”

With a great sum obtained I this freedom.

Anyone can be a barbarian; it requires a terrible effort to be or remain a civilised man.

What is this British freedom that we hear so much about? We New Zealanders pride ourselves on being among the inheritors of British freedom. We constantly invoke the spirit of freedom. We are fighting, side by side with Britain, for our freedom and the freedom of others. What is freedom, and especially British freedom? Is it engendered in the heart or in the head? Is it something like the air we breathe, or has it a legal foundation? Is it an abstraction or a reality? Do we ever consider what are the bases of our freedom? Now that for the second time in a generation our freedom is most gravely challenged, I suggest that we should consider such foundations, that we should face the fact that freedom is not a law of nature, but something we have won through centuries of struggle, and while it is in essence spiritual, an attitude of mind and heart, it rests, politically speaking, on certain fundamental enactments.

Those who point to British freedom are sometimes told it is a sham. They are asked to look at the restrictions imposed upon the citizen on all sides, restraints exercised not only by the law, but by money, position and privilege. Let us frankly admit that these restraints exist. There is no such thing as perfect, absolute freedom. Quite apart from the factors of life's inequalities and man's selfishness, society is bound, for its own protection and progress, to say that citizens shall do, or shall not do, certain things. One is not free to refuse to pay taxes. One cannot build a house without submitting the plans to the local authority. Freedom of expression is restricted by the laws governing slander, libel, sedition, and indecency. If I denounce my neighbour as a thief, I run the risk of being cast in damages; if I make such charges against, say, a religious society, as may cause a riot, I expose myself to prosecution for criminal libel; and so on and so on. This all points to the great truth that obligations are the complement of liberties. The civilised man recognises that he is free only within the framework of such obligations; he asserts his rights, but does not overlook his duties. It is, as Mr. Leonard Woolf says, a very difficult thing to be a civilised man. Much of the difficulty of constructing and developing a civilised society arises from the disposition of so many people to insist on their rights, but to neglect their duties.

Despite these restrictions, the fundamentals of our freedom remain. They are immensely valuable; unfortunately we are so accustomed to them that we are inclined to take them for granted. If we lost them, we should at once appreciate their full value. So, having been told we are in danger of losing them, let us see, in brief, what they are. First of all, there is the right to choose our Government. There is no such right in totalitarian States. There only one party is recognised in such Parliaments as exist—the ruling party. We all have a vote and we may vote for any party, any candidate, we please. And Parliament, composed of the candidates we choose, can do anything it likes, subject to whatever restraints the constitution may impose. With freedom to vote goes freedom to criticise. It is significant that the Opposition in the House of Commons and in our own House, is known as His Majesty's Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition in Britain is paid £2,000 a year by the State, as much as a minor Minister. Here in New Zealand the Leader of the Opposition is assisted by the State in the discharge of his duties. That is to say, the Government of the day subsidises its critic-in-chief. What would happen in the Parliaments of Germany or Russia if a member got up and flatly opposed Hitler or Stalin? Think of Bateman's picture of the guardsman dropping his rifle. Moreover, Parliament has complete power of the purse. Not a penny of public money can be spent without Parliamentary sanction. If Parliament did not vote supply, the whole of the Civil Service would cease to function. The necessity for passing the annual Budget is one of the main safeguards of popular liberties. The old Germany had a Parliamentary system with a very active Opposition, but its power in finance was severely limited; if a Budget was rejected, the previous year's Budget operated. A similar rule obtains in Japan. There is also in Britain the annual Army Act, without which the organisation of the Crown's armed forces could not be carried on. This measure is an embodiment of the supremacy of the civil power.

page 23

The body of these rights has been established only as a result of conflict, often splashed with blood. When Tennyson speaks of freedom broadening down from precedent to precedent, he idealises the process of change. Freedom has had to be fought for by soldiers on the battlefield, by prisoners languishing in gaol, by loss of property, liberty, health, life itself. The English kings disciplined the barons, and welded England into a nation. The barons exacted Magna Carta from John. The modern view that the barons were thinking more of their own interests than of the people's may be justified, but Magna Carta established principles of freedom and justice, and when a copy of it was sent to the United States the other day, it was deposited in the same room in the Congressional Library as the Declaration of Independence and the original of the Constitution, and the British Ambassador recalled that the founders of the Republic had appealed to its provisions. There was the long fight between Crown and Parliament for the right to govern. It cost England a civil war and the execution of one king and the deposition of another; not until Victoria's reign, and perhaps even later, were the limitations of the Royal prerogative restricted to what they are to-day.

Side by side with this conflict the struggle of the people to win a voice in government went on, and also the battle for freedom of opinion and association, education, and religious toleration. We know that poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries hymned freedom. England was held up as the world's chief guardian of the precious thing. But the England of that day, for all the strength and determination which helped to overthrow Napoleon, as it had overthrown the ambitions of Spain, and of France under Louis XIV—both of them autocracies—the England of that day was sick with ignorance, corruption, intolerance, and privilege. “It is not to be thought of that the flood of British freedom”–you all know that great sonnet of Wordsworth's. At that time, however, there was no national system of education; the right of association was denied to workers, and as late as the 'thirties men were transported for demanding it; the House of Commons was packed with representatives of rotten boroughs. The fight over the Reform Bill of 1832 nearly caused a revolution, but do you know how many voters that famous Act added to the Register? Less than half a million. What is equally surprising is that this about doubled the number of voters–in a population of twenty-four millions.
(Photo., courtesy Turnbull Library). The title page of the first edition of Milton's famous Areopagitica, which was the first set defence of liberty in the English language—“A splendid arsenal from which whole generations of the soldiers of freedom have selected their choicest weapons.”

(Photo., courtesy Turnbull Library).
The title page of the first edition of Milton's famous Areopagitica, which was the first set defence of liberty in the English language—“A splendid arsenal from which whole generations of the soldiers of freedom have selected their choicest weapons.”

The fight for the franchise went on into the twentieth century; not till 1918 did women get the vote. Meanwhile the right of association—completely denied to-day in Germany and Russia–had been won. It is among our great principles of freedom. Another achievement was the secrecy of the ballot. In the old days the landlord knew how the tenant voted; the employer could penalise his workmen. To-day we go to the polling booth secure in the knowledge that we are free to vote as we choose.

There developed, too, a spirit of religious toleration. The main measure of Catholic emancipation is not much more than a hundred years old, and other instalments are less. It is only seventy years since nonconformists were admitted to the Universities in England. And with all this there has widened and deepened that spirit of general toleration which is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of English life. Political opponents are friends in private life. In the great strike of 1926 there was a football match between strikers and police, and the wife of the Chief Constable kicked off.

Karl Marx's “Capital” is one of the books chosen to-day for British soldiers in France. The orators' pitch in Hyde Park, where all sorts of opinions are expressed, with policemen watching to see that no one gets hurt, is still an institution. In a recent definition of democracy, a leader of one of the Scandinavian nations included the right of a man to buy the newspaper he chose at a bookstall. In Germany and Russia there is only the official press. Subject to the laws governing libel, obscenity, blasphemy, and incitement to violence, British communities enjoy freedom of publication. In Germany there have been bonfires of books displeasing to the ruling power, and perhaps the ultimate depth of meanness is reached in the ban placed upon the name of one of the greatest of German lyric poets, Heine. Germans are allowed to sing his songs but not to associate him with them. It is as if Disraeli's novels were to be published in England without the author's name.

Then there is freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment. We go home from work in the evening knowing that our home is our castle. A policeman can enter only with a warrant. If we are arrested we must be definitely charged and brought before a court at once. “Habeas Corpus” is still a very real principle of enormous value. The judge who tries us (if our offence is indictable) can be removed from office only by resolution of both Houses of Parliament. To plead “Habeas Corpus” to the Gestapo might be worse than waste of breath; one would probably get a crack on the head with a truncheon. There one is liable to be hauled off at any time of the day or page 24 night to prison or concentration camp, perhaps to disappear entirely from the ken of one's family. Spies abound. Children inform against parents. In the shape of dictaphones, the very walls have ears. In British countries the newspapers and radio services of the world are open to the citizen. In Germany, listening to a foreign radio station is punishable with imprisonment and, in certain cases, with death.

If Wordsworth and other men of his time thought they had reason to cherish their liberties, how much more reason have we to-day, whose liberties are so much wider! The argument that the masses have nothing to defend is false on both planes, material and spiritual. Even if they owned no property—and there has been an enormous increase in their possessions—the consideration would remain that since there is no property qualification for the vote, there should be none for the defence of the country. When universal suffrage was a popular subject of debate, it was a stock contention for the affirmative that even the property-less person had a stake in the country, and this contention did not insult freedom and the other imponderables by taking a stand on material benefits only. When it was questioned whether he had much to fight for, Edie Ochiltree, the beggar in “The Antiquary,” made a most robust answer:

“Me no muckle to fight for, sir Isna there the country to fight for, and the burnsides that I gang daundering beside, and the hearts of the gudewives that gie me my bit bread, and the bits o' weans that come toddling to play wi' me when I come about a landward toun?”

Edie had at least the freedom of the countryside.

So the sooner we all realise what freedom is, and that it is in deadly peril, the better. It is something that has been fought for many times, and will be lost if it is not defended today. Possibly there is even a disposition to imagine that whatever happens, things will go on much as they do. A graver mistake could not be made. Years ago someone put to an Indian Nationalist the question what would he do if the English left India and warlike
John Hampden (1594–1643) cousin of Oliver Cromwell, and great parliamentary leader. For his integrity, valour and selfless devotion to the cause of freedom, he was called “The Patriot.”

John Hampden (1594–1643) cousin of Oliver Cromwell, and great parliamentary leader. For his integrity, valour and selfless devotion to the cause of freedom, he was called “The Patriot.”

peoples from the north invaded Bengal. “Do?” he replied. “I should appeal to the High Court.” Let us get this into our heads. If we lose this war there won't be any High Courts. There won't be any waiting for warrants signed by magistrates, or any “Habeas Corpus,” or airing of our grievances in the newspapers, or untrammelled grumbling about the Government over morning tea, or trade union meetings, or debates in Parliament as we know them, or pleasant free-discussion summer schools. We shall have to do what we are told, and neither the telling nor the penalties for disobeying will be pleasant. If you doubt this prospect, consider what has happened in Czecho-Slovakia and Poland.

The war is a struggle beween two ideals, the ideal of democracy, which is the only political system in which personal freedom can flourish, and the ideal of a super-State, in which not only is the individual entirely subordinated to the State, but every form of meanness, deceit, cruelty and oppression is held to be sanctified by the cause. We are fighting a great and powerful nation that is armed with more than guns; it has, or its leaders have, a complete philosophy of government opposed in every vital respect to our own, and cherished with fanatical zeal. There is no secret about this. The enemy's aims are proclaimed loudly and clearly by word and deed. He hates us with a deep and bitter hatred, not only for our possessions, but for our faith. One of the most distinguished of English publicists, who knows Europe backward, has said the Nazis hate the British for the fact that they pay their Leader of the Opposition a salary. This may seem fantastic, but it is not. The status of the Leader of the Opposition is a symbol of free discussion, and to the Nazis free discussion is abominable. They cultivate an intense and terrible fanaticism of political thought, a dark and dreadful mysticism of racial and national superiority. Freedom, justice, mercy, pity, chivalry and toleration—ideals for which Western civilisation has striven for so long, and with such conspicuous if limited success, wither in the breath of this system—and the system is on the march.

“It is not to be thought of—.” Unfortunately it is, and the harder we think about it, the better for our safety.