Saturday, 28 February 2009

On Liberty



This week The Times commissioned a lyrical piece by Philip Pullman on freedom and the British electorate's bovine attitude to it to mark the Convention on Modern Liberty. The ever-alert Englishman noticed that having published it, they then pulled it from the web. Someone complained. Surely not the government?

The web being the web, it cropped up in a few places. So, to increase its circulation, here it is. It's worth reading.

Are such things done on Albion’s shore?
by Philip Pullman

The image of this nation that haunts me most powerfully is that of the sleeping giant Albion in William Blake’s prophetic books. Sleep, profound and inveterate slumber: that is the condition of Britain today.

We do not know what is happening to us. In the world outside, great events take place, great figures move and act, great matters unfold, and this nation of Albion murmurs and stirs while malevolent voices whisper in the darkness - the voices of the new laws that are silently strangling the old freedoms the nation still dreams it enjoys.

We are so fast asleep that we don’t know who we are any more. Are we English? Scottish? Welsh? British? More than one of them? One but not another? Are we a Christian nation - after all we have an Established Church - or are we something post-Christian? Are we a secular state? Are we a multifaith state? Are we anything we can all agree on and feel proud of?

The new laws whisper:

You don’t know who you are
You’re mistaken about yourself
We know better than you do what you consist of, what labels apply to you, which facts about you are important and which are worthless
We do not believe you can be trusted to know these things, so we shall know them for you
And if we take against you, we shall remove from your possession the only proof we shall allow to be recognised


The sleeping nation dreams it has the freedom to speak its mind. It fantasises about making tyrants cringe with the bluff bold vigour of its ancient right to express its opinions in the street.
This is what the new laws say about that:

Expressing an opinion is a dangerous activity
Whatever your opinions are, we don’t want to hear them
So if you threaten us or our friends with your opinions we shall treat you like the rabble you are
And we do not want to hear you arguing about it
So hold your tongue and forget about protesting
What we want from you is acquiescence


The nation dreams it is a democratic state where the laws were made by freely elected representatives who were answerable to the people. It used to be such a nation once, it dreams, so it must be that nation still. It is a sweet dream.

You are not to be trusted with laws
So we shall put ourselves out of your reach
We shall put ourselves beyond your amendment or abolition
You do not need to argue about any changes we make, or to debate them, or to send your representatives to vote against them
You do not need to hold us to account
You think you will get what you want from an inquiry?
Who do you think you are?
What sort of fools do you think we are?


The nation’s dreams are troubled, sometimes; dim rumours reach our sleeping ears, rumours that all is not well in the administration of justice; but an ancient spell murmurs through our somnolence, and we remember that the courts are bound to seek the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and we turn over and sleep soundly again.
And the new laws whisper:

We do not want to hear you talking about truth
Truth is a friend of yours, not a friend of ours
We have a better friend called hearsay, who is a witness we can always rely on
We do not want to hear you talking about innocence
Innocent means guilty of things not yet done
We do not want to hear you talking about the right to silence
You need to be told what silence means: it means guilt
We do not want to hear you talking about justice
Justice is whatever we want to do to you
And nothing else


Are we conscious of being watched, as we sleep? Are we aware of an ever-open eye at the corner of every street, of a watching presence in the very keyboards we type our messages on? The new laws don’t mind if we are. They don’t think we care about it.

We want to watch you day and night
We think you are abject enough to feel safe when we watch you
We can see you have lost all sense of what is proper to a free people
We can see you have abandoned modesty
Some of our friends have seen to that
They have arranged for you to find modesty contemptible
In a thousand ways they have led you to think that whoever does not want to be watched must have something shameful to hide
We want you to feel that solitude is frightening and unnatural
We want you to feel that being watched is the natural state of things


One of the pleasant fantasies that consoles us in our sleep is that we are a sovereign nation, and safe within our borders. This is what the new laws say about that:

We know who our friends are
And when our friends want to have words with one of you
We shall make it easy for them to take you away to a country where you will learn that you have more fingernails than you need
It will be no use bleating that you know of no offence you have committed under British law
It is for us to know what your offence is
Angering our friends is an offence


It is inconceivable to me that a waking nation in the full consciousness of its freedom would have allowed its government to pass such laws as the Protection from Harassment Act (1997), the Crime and Disorder Act (1998), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000), the Terrorism Act (2000), the Criminal Justice and Police Act (2001), the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001), the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Extension Act (2002), the Criminal Justice Act (2003), the Extradition Act (2003), the Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2003), the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (2004), the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), the Inquiries Act (2005), the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005), not to mention a host of pending legislation such as the Identity Cards Bill, the Coroners and Justice Bill, and the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Inconceivable.

And those laws say:

Sleep, you stinking cowards
Sweating as you dream of rights and freedoms
Freedom is too hard for you
We shall decide what freedom is
Sleep, you vermin
Sleep, you scum

3 comments:

electro-kevin said...

Just that list of legislation would have been punchy enough.

apricotfox said...

Philip Pullman is hugely under-estimated because he is identified with children's fiction ( where, in fact, some of the finest writing is found). He is a great figure, a latter-day Swift or Pope. An iconoclast AND a guardian of all that is best. No wonder the establishment fears him. This is a masterly piece of writing and it should indeed have the widest possible circulation. Good on you, Idle.

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