Review: What Price Liberty?

If Ben Wilson’s right, Britain is in trouble. By forgetting the importance of liberty the country is threatening to betray everything it holds dear.

By Alex Stevenson

In the aftermath of September 11th the fear of terrorism had a tangible effect on our society. What Price Liberty?, now out in paperback, is at its terrifying best when Wilson addresses the sacrifices the government has been prepared to make in the name of security. We’re familiar with the arguments. Being confronted with them head-on is a thoroughly disturbing experience.

But Wilson’s concerns only begin with the headlines. He moves beyond New Labour’s much-criticised counter-terror legislation to a much wider critique of 21st century Britain. The argument is a cumulative one. A ‘risk-averse’ culture, where ideological politics has been replaced by the management logic of the private sector, has stripped liberty from the debate. Nowhere is this more damaging than in society’s agonising over multiculturalism, which Wilson views as fertile ground for discussions on liberty. Unfortunately, he argues, liberty has been pushed to one side: in its place comes a struggle for political correctness which – pushed to its logical conclusion – will see only “trite” contributions permitted in public discourse. The net result is the definite erosion of ‘liberty’ in Britain.

At the heart of Wilson’s preoccupation is a fear we are living in a country where the rules have changed. “What marks us out from the past is our failure, in a revolutionary time, to think afresh about liberty, drawing upon ideas from the past and applying them to the challenges we face,” he warns. The notion that we have become dislocated from history is a chilling one.

It implies all those centuries of hard-fought-for values are being bleached away by the 21st century; that the British people are forgetting the “bloody-minded” attitude which made the country so great. In its place comes an insipid dilution with which Wilson is deeply frustrated. He is outraged and despairing, angry and lamenting in turn. He could not be more libertarian if he tried. But he has paid a price for doing so. His inner historian is losing out.

It seems, on close reading of his history of liberty from the English Civil War onwards, the fundamental shift occurred not in the last ten years but in the last 100. It was the demise of the Victorian laissez-faire attitude which prompted the biggest shift in liberty’s history. The classical ‘negative liberty’ notion, where individual freedoms were a prerequisite for economic prosperity, met a sorry end as Britain’s increasingly complex society required new action from the state. Compulsory education, steps to improve public health and other impingements on individuals’ liberties increased the liberty of the majority. It remained the same in the 20th century: the NHS is a monument to ‘positive liberty’. Margaret Thatcher’s commitment to the individual provided a partial reassertion of this view, but Britain had already changed beyond recognition. So had liberty.

Wilson’s presentation of this evolution, which takes up the first two-thirds of the book, is impeccable in academic terms. He is a historian of compelling skill, whether presenting the panoply of dingy heroes which punctuate liberty’s past or summarising the philosophical approaches of each era. It’s a pleasure – and informing – to be able to place today’s worries within this all-embracing context.

But then comes a sudden change. Out of nowhere, right about the time Wilson turns his gaze on Tony Blair, What Price Liberty? transforms itself into what an entirely different book. Gone is the careful analysis of liberty’s progress. In come the seething passions of a zealot. The result is What Price Liberty? feels like an unfinished story.

It’s a hugely impressive work, nonetheless. Wilson the scholar has no interest in the Whiggish approach of so many historians. He doesn’t view the glorious march of progress towards the modern world. Instead liberty is something which has to be fought for afresh by successive generations. We have “experienced” centuries of liberty and, as a result, are equipped with the cultural confidence to defend our rights.

Are we now forgetting that bloody-minded culture? “History teaches us that liberty is something which must be relearned and rearticulated,” Wilson writes. It also teaches us, as his book has so clearly demonstrated, that its sway over the country has ebbed and flowed throughout the last 300 years.

Liberty is out of fashion for now, as Wilson the historian has shown. Wilson the libertarian’s fear that it is imperilled by the latest cultural shifts doesn’t quite fit. If he’s right, it’s going against the lessons of history.