Unmisting the windows

Following on from my previous post on proposed anti-terror legislation, Alan Bennett’s 2004 play The History Boys opens with a cabinet minister explaining a new piece of legislation in terms that are eerily familiar to anyone who has heard the government’s arguments in favour of its various liberty-trimming proposals over the years:

“Our strategy should … be to insist that the bill does not diminish the liberty of the subject but amplifies it; that the true liberty of the subject consists in the freedom to walk the streets unmolested etc., etc., secure in the knowledge that if a crime is committed it will be promptly and sufficiently punished, and that far from circumscribing the liberty of the subject this will enlarge it.

“I would not try to be shrill or earnest. An amused tolerance always comes over best, particularly on television. Paradox works well and mists up the windows, which is handy. ‘The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom,’ type thing.”

But one of the most effective warnings of where all this can lead comes from over 200 years ago, in 1798, when the London Corresponding Society published an “Address to the Irish Nation” in response to the brutal subjugation of Ireland taking place at that time:

May the present Address convince you how truly we sympathise in all your Sufferings … May Nations … learn that “existing circumstances” have been the Watchword of Despotism in all Ages and in all Countries; and that when a People once permits Government to violate the genuine Principles of Liberty, Encroachment will be grafted upon Encroachment; Evil will grow upon Evil; Violation will follow Violation, and Power will engender Power, till the Liberties of ALL will be held at despotic command…

(EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p.171)

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