By Rufus Coombe | United Kingdom
During the 19th century, Britain was a pioneer of freedom, a leader in individual liberties, and a staunch defender of the ideas of classical liberalism, many of which have their origins in British philosophy. Today, Britain no longer stands as a staunch bastion of liberty nor does it stand out in its defense of free markets. Britain, the country that began modern capitalism, lead the campaign against slavery, created the first restrictive constitution (the Magna Carta), popularised free trade and which was at the forefront of the fight for personal liberty. Much of this changed dramatically during the late 20th century.
An integral question for the modern day is; does Britain still protect the values of free people and free markets it once espoused? How authoritarian is modern Britain?
A common talking point of the right, particularly in America, is the alleged authoritarianism of Europe. The focus of such arguments usually revolves around the supposedly tyrannous state of Britain. One should explore the accuracy of this sentiment and tackle both the myths and the truths of the accusation.
Britain and Negative Rights
To assess the validity of the claims about freedom in Britain, start by using the idea of negative rights. Negative rights are a rejection of the contemporary view of rights. They state that an individual is free if others cannot inhibit them from acting. Negative rights impose a duty on others to abscond from intervening whereas positive rights compel another to act to provide the right. An action is not representative of freedom if others are forced to aid you in any way. By this definition, one does not have a ‘right’ to healthcare because healthcare forces others to act for you (they must pay taxes to subsidize it). However one does have a right to private property as private property only requires that others refrain from infringing upon your land. These differences will be crucial in the analysis.
Britain, for a large part, is still a free society. Inalienable rights such as the right to property and life are still tenets of its legal system. Murder, rape, and theft are prohibited by the British state. The government still carries out its proper protective functions such as the protection of life and property.
Furthermore, British press freedom is ranked 40th in the world, low for a western country but still above the global average. Britain, in theory, also has equality in the eyes of the law for sexual and racial minorities summarised in the 2010 equality act which forbids the state or judiciary from discriminating based on race, religion or sexuality. Moreover, the police force is unarmed and has restraints placed upon it. This protects the citizens from being violated by a rogue or overreaching constabulary.
However, Britain has ventured into an age of authoritarianism. With enforced progressivism, the introduction of an extensive welfare state, and increasingly invasive powers handed to the police, Britain seems on the cusp of becoming Orwellian.
An Orwellian Country
The principle of voluntary association has been disregarded and replaced with a new idea that one’s land is no longer one’s own but rather the property of the community. This is seen by the popularisation of collectivist values with most, if not all prominent politicians arguing from the collective perspective on issues such as healthcare, education and unemployment benefit. No prominent political party supports the privatization of these faculties of the state.
The individual is no longer free to use their property as they see fit, instead the use of land is now often dictated by the state. For example, intrusive Pigovian taxes augmented by heavy substance controls means that people can no longer buy and sell what they want. Britain has waged an extensive war against ‘victimless crimes’ with a costly drug war and stringent rules on prostitution. Implementation of a ‘sugar tax‘ and congestion charges (effectively taxes on driving in certain areas) has allowed the state to step further forwards in its march for omnipotence. Britain is very much a nanny state with Pigovian taxes on everything from alcohol to energy drinks.
In addition, it is now illegal to refuse service to certain groups of people or to extend membership organizations to only one member. For example, the equality act of 2010 means employees and property owners cannot discriminate based on race, sexuality or gender. While equal treatment should be encouraged, legislation compelling it is in flagrant violation of the principle of individual sovereignty. The state intervenes to ensure that an opening to one is an opening to all- a job must be equal to all applicants regardless of the wishes of the employer. In Britain, one has no choice but to ‘bake the cake‘. The moral reservations of individuals are cast aside for the demands of the collective. Unlike in some countries (such as the US) where the right to refuse services have been preserved.
Furthermore, Britain has implemented numerous draconian free speech restrictions which inhibit the individual’s ability to speak candidly and openly. With the recent and notoriously case of ‘count Dankula‘, who was fined for racist language and hate speech after filming his pug making Nazi salutes, it is clear that Britain is no longer free, even in the realm of entertainment. The police in the UK spent 3,750 police hours tackling online hate speech, most of which was even too trivial to be taken to court. Britain has begun curbing freedom of speech- a fundamental tenet of freedom.
But it is not only jokes which are being censored (albeit unfunny ones). The government has criminalized numerous political organizations of an unsavory nature. The actions of individual members of these groups have led to the government cracking down on their very existence. Such as the banning of National Front (a neo-fascist organization) which was banned in December 2016. Again, the right to free association falls apart.
The Surveillance State
Then there is the issue of privacy. In 2016 the government passed the investigatory powers bill, also dubbed the ‘snoopers charter’. This was only the most recent extension of the state’s powers to monitor and collect online content. The bill stipulates that all data providers must monitor and keep a record of their users’ messages and viewed content which the security agencies can then view if necessary. The UK authorities now have the power to draw up and read anyone’s private messages or see their web history, a clear violation of the right to privacy.
Government mass surveillance does not end at the internet, the security agencies also have a prodigious network of security cameras. It is estimated that there are 11 people per security camera in the UK. Britain is one of the most surveyed countries in the world.
Moreover, Britain also has a protruding welfare state. Funded by burdening tax rates (some brackets which are in excess of 40%). People are being extorted to pay for the government, large tax rates are the enemy of a free and prosperous country. The British welfare state is one of the most intrusive and malignant welfare programs in the world. The arguably bureaucracy riddled welfare system is now being reformed, however, the main principle of collective responsibility remains. To those who believe in a free economy, this spells bad news.
41% of GDP in the UK is from government spending. This exorbitant amount of government spending coupled with cumbersome regulations means huge sections of the economy are now de facto controlled by the state. The constant stream of new regulation flowing from parliament augmented by additional EU restrictions has led to an economic minefield of regulation. Bizarrely, private property no longer seems very private. What good is privately owning a business or a home if it’s management is dictated to you by the state?
Finally, what many Americans love to decry; Britain has the most hostile gun regulation in the world. The right to own guns has been severely curtailed. The rules on getting a firearm have very stringent since the 1997 handgun act. Due to a recent surge in knife crime in the capital, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, is banning knives and considering imposing yet more pernicious regulation on gun ownership. The idea of banning knives is something Americans find alien if also a little comical, in Britain the general populace barely bat an eye at the idea.
This article was intended to be a balanced piece to debunk the claims of totalitarianism in Britain, but the overwhelming amount of evidence found was against this premise. The more was discovered about the modern legal system, the more demoralizing the situation seemed to become. As you will see from the points discussed above, Britain is far from the bastion of freedom it once was. It has strayed from beliefs in small government and inalienable rights. There is now a socialist mindset which has permeated into British society. A mindset which will only bring more authoritarianism.
This article has only tackled the major talking points and there is far more to say. The government is continuing to snowball in size, pressure groups seem to see the government as the only tool for influence and the corporate elite are continuing to pump out regulation. The situation will deteriorate before it gets better.
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