Individualism and autonomy used to be prized – now they are held in contempt, argues Simon Heffer
Published: 8:11PM GMT 16 Mar 2010
A danger of the Government’s having made such a mess of the economy is that one risks forgetting all the other horrors for which it is responsible. Between now and the election I shall make a point of discussing some of these other factors that an intelligent voter should want to consider before casting his or her ballot. Despite stiff competition from matters like Europe, immigration, law and order and the near-destruction of our education system, one is perhaps worse than all the others: the insidious and at times quite terrifying assault on our civil liberties.
I have been prompted to think more about this after reading a new book by one of Cambridge University’s most impressive young political philosophers, Ben Colburn. In Autonomy and Liberalism (Routledge, £70), Dr Colburn seeks “an understanding of what a liberal political philosophy is committed to”. In this country, “liberal” is still just a term of approbation. Mrs Thatcher was a 19th century liberal. I have always considered myself a Gladstonian liberal. However, in America the word is used by people whose politics are broadly the same as Mrs Thatcher’s and mine as a term of abuse. Perhaps the difference is that we think of liberalism in predominantly economic terms and the Americans think of it as defining something social.
This creates what Dr Colburn calls “a cacophony” surrounding the term, and in his book he seeks to restore order. To his mind, individual autonomy is central to the liberal political philosophy. Although a political philosopher, Dr Colburn takes a view of autonomy that verges upon the spiritual: “What is distinctive and valuable about human life is our capacity to decide for ourselves what is valuable in life, and to shape our lives in accordance with that decision”.
There has, he argues later in his book, to be equality of access to autonomy; and he points out that autonomy is not a term interchangeable with freedom, and demonstrates how increased freedom may actually restrict the autonomy of some individuals simply because they do not have the knowledge or the means to handle it. These are rarified points, worthy of a political philosopher, but perhaps not with an immediate practical application to our politics. However, it is precisely this sort of philosophical underpinning that has been absent from so much policy during the past 13 years, and which has caused unnecessary restrictions to our autonomy: and, in the process, created a state that is becoming progressively more and more authoritarian, and therefore unpleasant, to live in.
The more one reads of Dr Colburn’s thesis, the more one understands how little firm philosophy there has been to how this Government has acted in so many fields. It is easy enough to see this in areas of activities that it has sought to proscribe; but even where it has enabled, or has sought to enable, it has gone woefully astray. Take the intentions behind Harriet Harman’s proposed equality legislation, which seem to consist of her attempting to use the apparatus of the state to level off any “inequalities” that people may endure because of their failure to take responsibility properly for themselves, or the success of others in doing so.
Dr Colburn stresses that in a properly liberal society equal access to autonomy is vastly preferable to equal outcomes because of “the proper recognition of the importance of personal responsibility as part of the ideal of an autonomous life”. Inadvertently, the philosopher has put his finger on the real problem with this Government’s attitude, and therefore the real problem with so much that it tries to do: it doesn’t believe in personal responsibility, and it doesn’t like autonomy.
The Government has created 4,300 new offences since it came to office. Many of these are either absurd (such as making it a crime to use a nuclear weapon) or they duplicate laws on the statute book. Some would say this highlights the ignorance of those who govern us. Maybe it does; but I would argue, too, that it shows their insatiable hunger for control.
In the long years of Tory rule, those who reminded the electorate that with a Labour government you also got socialist control were dismissed as scaremongers. However, it is true, and we now see it is true. We live in a country where harmless people taking pictures of cathedrals are warned off by police invoking anti-terrorism laws; where the same legislation is used to regulate the positioning of wheelie bins; where smoking is banned even in public places whose owners wish to allow it; where the hunting of vermin is banned even on the land of those who wish to have it hunted. All these invasions of individual autonomy have taken place since 1997.
It could have been worse. We could have had identity cards, forcing a citizen to prove his or her right to be here, or to admit who he or she is, despite having committed no offence. We could have had a national DNA database. We could have had a law that prevented comedians telling jokes about religion. We could have had the restriction of jury trials. We could have had people locked up without trial for 90 days because the police are incapable of finding any evidence upon which to convict them of something. We could have criminalised people for being nutters, for that is one of the best words to describe those poisonous idiots who claim Auschwitz was just a film set and the genocide of the Jews didn’t happen. All these things have been discussed or proposed by Labour in varying degrees of seriousness, but – so far – have not been inflicted on our people. However, they show a certain, and unpleasant, cast of mind.
As it is, enough has been done by the state to remove our autonomy. We are discouraged from having opinions of our own, especially on moral or ethical matters, and certainly from expressing them. It is frowned on to be opposed to abortion; or to believe homosexual partnerships to be lacking in equivalence to marriage; or to imagine that stable family units with both a mother and a father are superior, generally, to those that lack one or the other; or to imagine that married families might last better than unmarried ones; or to have any sort of perceived privilege, whether it be through wealth, hard work, luck or simply having the right outlook on life or the right sort of parents.
In Miss Harman’s insane view the state can, indeed – and should – eliminate all these factors, or work to compensate those who do not have them. This can only be done at the cost of autonomy: at the cost of people being allowed to decide what in their lives is valuable, and living their lives in accordance with those decisions. We are more regulated, more policed, more restricted than in living memory, except in war.
This is the natural consequence of having politicians infected with a doctrine that office is about the power to prevent rather than about the power to enable. They are also politicians who restrict the many, without a thought for their liberty, in order to try to control the behaviour of a few. Individualism and autonomy used to be prized rights of our people. Now they are held in contempt by our governors. If we seek reasons not to give Labour another term in office, this wanton theft of our liberties should be high among them.
Published in the Telegraph: