Debate: We’ve Never Had it So Good

My college’s History Society was to have a debate today, which was cancelled. Censorship! No, actually, revision sessions were scheduled at dinner. But, as the likelihood of this debate taking place before the end of the term is now virtually zero, here is what I intended to say – and will say when it goes ahead. 

Motion – ‘We’ve Never Had it So Good’

I must take issue with this motion. I find it patronising and almost 100% wrong.

Oh, indeed, some qualifications are called for. I won’t try to deny that we are all immeasurably better off than our 1914 counterparts in that we can Skype people, we can live our lives without fear of rickets, polio, or David Lloyd George , and we can go days without having to do anything involving a great deal of physical exertion. Maybe this means we are freer in some sense, but it is certainly not up for debate that we are more comfortable on the whole than our great grandparents were when they were our age. What is up for debate is whether we are, in addition to being better off in terms of lifespan and technology, better off in politics, economics, the law, society, and culture.

Before I begin, I must at least elaborate on my ‘patronising’ remark. To do so, I feel compelled to quote the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle when he said at an IQ^2 debate with the same motion as the one we are debating (paraphrase):

“The very idea of Gross National Happiness was dreamed up by Bhutan’s Dragon King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck as a means of assuring his oppressed people that whilst they were impecunious peasants, clinging to the side of a mountain, and subsisting on a diet of yak’s milk, while being presided over by an obese autocrat who thought he was a dragon, they were nonetheless overflowing with great bonhomie and merriment.”

(We are those peasants and the ruling class is our King Jigme Wangchuck.)

While I won’t deny the possibility of all objective knowledge, it is widely accepted that at least value is subjective. People want different things out of life and, for the most part, if we leave them alone to do as they like, they will get what they want. This does not guarantee happiness, but it is surely more humane than allowing a ruling class to tell us we are happy.

I am afraid that in the allotted time I would simply not be able to cover the national decline in all of its aspects – economics, politics, the law, society, and culture – and so will focus on the one overarching theme, that of the imminent threat of our becoming a police state.

While we may be plagued by recessions and sexism and racism and Russell Brand, it is generally taken as the Gospel Truth that at least we can say one thing with confidence: that the right people are filling the commons, the lords, the judiciary, the newspaper columns, and the university faculties. For reasons I won’t go into, this is incorrect. To even begin to understand the nature of the ruling class in England you must read Sean Gabb’s ‘Cultural Revolution, Culture War’ and Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s ‘Democracy: The God that Failed’.

Civil liberties are a difficult thing to define without going into abstract political philosophy, but they include the right to life, liberty, and property, the freedom from torture, due process of law, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of contract, and freedom of association.

You may many of you be wondering, ‘Well, where’s the history in this?’

This is not mere ideological drivel. English law is fascinating in its own right, and the attempts of our present ruling class, indeed, successive governments since the Great War, to change the nature of this body of law beyond recognition today provide the best excuse for learning about it.

Where to start? You could start with the English Charter of Liberties in 1100AD which extended rights to the nobles and churchmen. You might look at Magna Carta a century later which extended rights to other groups. For centuries our laws were tried and tested in the common law courts. More recently, rights like collective bargaining and manhood suffrage were granted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the consensus among the law-enforcers and the law-makers for centuries was that law was something discovered through the natural light of reason, not something you pass to enlarge the state or to play one group off against another.

Since I have so grandly said that we are going to Hell in a handcart legally speaking, I suppose I had better give some evidence, although it is difficult to know where to begin. While the national decline in all other areas was certainly well under way before the 1980s, its progress has been exponential since then. In economics, for instance, if you believe coal mining to have been a Good Thing for Britain, then you might cite the closure of the mines under Thatcher. In general, manufacturing has been in a decline, with 1.5 million manufacturing jobs lost even during the 1997-2007 boom. But, I digress. Certainly, since the 1980s, our drift away from freedom has been accelerated.

To begin with freedom of speech, there’s Section 5 of the Public Order Act brought in under Thatcher, which allows the authorities to determine the legality of the very words you speak. Recently, since some time in 2012, we’ve been hearing repeated calls for, and plans for, regulation of the press which would break with a 300 year tradition of a free press.

And then there’s the attack on freedom of assembly. Mrs. Thatcher, in the Public Order Act, denied the right to peaceful protest in incidences where the police hadn’t been given at least six days’ notice – during which time a protest will go off the boil and the police will have stocked up on ammunition. The concerted attack on the freedom of assembly has had a terribly negative impact on our ability to organise sizeable meetings, demonstrations, and protests.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Big Brother watching us is found where they actually are watching us: until that fateful Act in ’86 there had long been restrictions on the ability of the state and its agents to spy on us. To ignore references to boring old laws, we need simply note that Britain has more CCTV cameras than China despite being a fraction of the size of that supposed communist (or is it state capitalist?) dictatorship. And still actual crimes go on being committed. It’s almost as if CCTV cameras aren’t there to protect us.

A more recent Act in 2004 again broke with a three hundred year old tradition starting with the Bill of Rights Act of 1689. It has long been a reasonable expectation of the British public that if they commit a crime, they will be dealt with by the police, and not the army. The Civil Contingencies Act made it legal for the state to dispatch the armed services on the streets during peace time, without the consent of parliament, to put down dissenters.

Oh, but I have saved the best example until last. Again, for over three hundred years, it has been a reasonable expectation of the British public that, if charged with a crime, they would be assumed innocent until an independent court and a jury of their peers found them to be guilty. This right stretches as far back as 1649 and the passing of the Habeas Corpus Act.You may still think that this is a right we have not lost. In theory, I suppose we haven’t, but successive laws have certainly undermined it to the point where it is becoming meaningless.

Let me explain what I mean. Again with the 1980s marking the beginning of this, successive governments and their laws have extended the detention without trial limit. This limit is the length of time a person can be detained by the police before either a criminal charge must be made against them or they can walk free. Before ’84, this limit was 24 hours. Under Thatcher this was extended to four days and under Blair an attempt was made to extend it to ninety days – he eventually settled for twenty eight, but the Coalition is doing its utmost to renew Blair’s twenty eight days limit as it ran out not too long ago. As a barometer, Russia’s detention without trial limit is five days and the US’s is just two.

As part of the anti-terror mania, in 2001, the detention without trial limit was effectively abolished for foreigners. A further encroachment on the presumption of innocence was made in 2006 when the Home Secretary was granted the powers to revoke passports, to tag, to monitor, to restrict phone calls, and do all kinds of other things without any evidence at all coming before a court of law to prove that anyone is indeed a criminal.

Not so long ago, you may remember, there was the odd mumble in the newspapers about ‘Secret Courts’, but no one really took it seriously and so it went by largely unnoticed. What the Coalition did was to apply Secret Courts, themselves first cropping up in the late nineties, to civil cases. This means that if a British citizen takes the state to court, government officials can present evidence to a judge which nobody but the judge himself will ever see. What has this got to do with history? This frankly shocking move ends our 700 year old tradition of open justice in this country.

Oh yes, they’ve never had it so good – they being the establishment and the authorities. If good means free, the state has never had it so good. We, on the other hand, are being robbed of our historic liberties and we aren’t even aware of it! Perhaps all this has just one positive side-effect: it is at the moment the best excuse we have for reading up on the ancient constitution of England. If for no other reason than a love of history, find out what rights you still have and when they were first enshrined in law – under the Anglo-Saxons? – under the Normans? – under the Hanoverians? Then maybe you’ll notice who’s trying to take them away from you. And then maybe you’ll realize that, at least legally speaking, we’ve had it so much better.


  1. Nicely put, Keir.

    You might want to add routine snooping into our communications, police surveillance of journalists and photographers, and abolition of double jeopardy.

    Not to mention upcoming “extremism disruption orders.”

  2. I would criticise Bhutan not for being too reactionary but not for being reactionary enough – for some decades now the government has tried to provide “public services” that can not possibly be afforded (sound familiar?) and has sold out its independence to India in order to get the government aid to try and finance these “public services”.

    One can see a similar thing in Sark – where the Barclay brothers forced the “blessings” of a modern state (paid officials, public services, taxation ………) on the evil “feudal” order. 10% of the population of Sark have left these “blessings” this year alone (it does not seem to have occurred to the “modern world” that the reason that people lived on an isolated windswept island was precisely to get away from the “blessings” of the modern state).

    No doubt Sark will soon become fully “modern” and ban “hate speech” and import (at the expense of the taxpayers – the people who did not pay any taxes only a few years ago) some “ethnic minorities” – but not ethnic minorities who can actually pay for themselves (oh dear me no), just ones who will have to depend on “public services” and “anti discrimination” regulations. For example the Obama Administration may break every law to get in millions of people to go on the various welfare-state schemes of the government – but should families turn up (perhaps home schoolers fleeing religious persecution in Germany) who wish to maintain themselves (without the aid of government education and health and income support and …..) the same Obama Administration tries desperately to DEPORT them. This is the true meaning of the Progressive Free Migration policy – if you are scumbag, welcome (let us rip up the laws so you can stay), but if you are not scumbag “out with you – and never darken our doors again”.

    Still back to this……

    Is technology more advanced than it was 50 or a hundred years ago?

    Yes indeed it is – but (please note) NOT because of state intervention.

    Does this mean that material living standards are higher?

    Yes indeed they are.

    Does this mean that we are more free?

    Only if one has a pig like definition of freedom.

    Indeed even if one has a pig like definition of freedom the expansion of the modern state (in both taxes, government spending and regulations) has meant that living standards have improved LESS than they otherwise would.

    With the technology of now people in 1914 would have had vastly higher living standards than we do today – whereas if we had to make do with their technology we would starve to death (or state dominated “social system” is that inefficient).

    Short version you are correct Mr Martland.

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