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2 February 2006Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

There's more to life than security
If ‘freedom from harm’ is the ultimate right, liberty loses out.

by Ben Walford

'Shanty towns in the shadows of skyscrapers' is how parts of the developing world are often described. It is a provoking visual image. Go to Westminster Palace in London and there are images equally as potent. Particularly striking is the contrast between the statues erected to liberty through those who secured it - Cromwell, Pankhurst and Churchill among others - and the constructs of black concrete that border the palace to protect it from a potential vehicular terrorist attack. Here is an image that evokes a central political tension of our times. Not, I would argue, between liberty and security, but between life and death. Or more accurately: between the fear of death and the enjoyment of life.

On a recent visit to the Houses of Parliament with a London friend, I asked him what he thought of the black concrete blocks. He didn't think them much intrusive and surely a mild inconvenience considering just how devastating would be, say, a truck bomb exploded near a packed Commons during prime minister's questions (PMQs). This is a disposition shared by many today. It is one that places physical security at the apex of a hierarchy of rights. In this case, then, the right to visit the seat of one's government without having to view and experience it bordered by ugly concrete blocks is superseded by a 'right to life' that justifies the presence of said blocks.

This view finds support at the highest levels of government. As Bruno Waterfield has highlighted on spiked, home secretary Charles Clark has '[gone] against his earlier statements, [and has] told MEPs that the highest freedom, in a new "hierarchy of rights", [is] the right not to be killed' (1). UK prime minister Tony Blair speaks constantly of a 'new climate' post-7/7, and believes that judicial objections made to anti-terrorism legislation in the past are losing credibility, as 'for obvious reasons, the mood now is different, people do not talk of scaremongering'.

The terrorist threat always presupposed an actual terrorist attack, but now hypothetical victims have become actual ones ('the circumstances of our national security have self-evidently changed' (2)) the primacy of the 'right to life' takes hold. Every erosion of rights becomes a minor infraction on our liberties, as the 'right to life' dwarfs all other claims. What good is freedom of expression to a dead man? The police force can expect strong support when they try to extend the reach of their powers. After all, they are guardians of this Ultimate Right; nullifying the terrorists who threaten to violate it on a grand scale.

One might think that this fetishising of the Ultimate Right represents life over death - with those concrete blocks, our deportation of radical preachers and steadily accruing police powers indicative of our determination to remain alive. This anal focus on the 'right to life' has, however, much more to do with death than with life. The 'right to life' and the preventive measures employed to secure it aren't so much about the living of life as the avoidance of death. Were we truly at war, with a substantial proportion of the population facing a clear and present mortal danger, life defined as the avoidance of death might be sufficient. It would take exaggeration of the rankest sort to suggest this is the case. To impose some perspective: it would take 58 terrorist attacks with the mortality rate of the 7/7 attacks for the toll to reach 3221, which is the number of Britons killed on the roads in 2004. It would take many more terrorist attacks to approach the number killed in the Blitz.

Our jitters about boarding underground trains may obscure, but they do not remove, the fact that the 'war on terrorism' is for us a very low casualty operation when compared to, say, the great wars of the twentieth century. If 7/7 evoked the Blitz spirit, it did so with an ounce of the Blitz threat. Our leaders and parts of the media, then, proffer a fear of death that is far removed from the chances of us dying. If we understand that the enjoyment of life in a democratic society comes from our liberties, we should see any reduction in our rights not as a sacrifice to security but as a give-away to those obsessed with death.

We could do with something of the spirit of Whig History today
The statues that surround Parliament say something about life and its enjoyment just as surely as the protective barrier says something about death and our fear of it. All countries have their national myths. These are sustaining narratives that inject virtue into the history and purpose of a nation. Britain's national myth is a 'Whig History', which interprets our past as the steady march of liberal democracy from the Magna Carta (1215) to the present day. Along the way are various staging posts in which, so the Whig History goes, our lives and liberties were challenged and yet we overcame the threat. The sculpted figures in and around Westminster palace are testaments to these victories, as many are statues erected to those who helped to secure liberty.

Oliver Cromwell, for example, whose rendering by Sir Hamo Thornycroft (1899) can be seen in front of Westminster Hall, has the place of a torch carrier for liberty - as bridging the gap between an illiberal Charles I and a less illiberal Charles II. Winston Churchill - our 'Greatest Briton' - who stands (even) larger than life in Parliament Square, is credited with being the inspiration for the defeat of fascism and the survival of our liberal state in the face of realistic annihilation.

Now, the Whig history is not without its flaws, and those specified by historian Herbert Butterfield back in 1931 still obtain (3). In particular, Butterfield noted the determinism of the approach. If all British political roads lead to liberty, no road really ever led anywhere else. Therefore less 'fitting' histories (such as a less charitable view of Oliver Cromwell or Churchill than stated above) are submerged beneath interpretations that comply with an orthodoxy that asserts the inexorable march of liberal Britain. There is an attendant risk of complacency (we need do nothing to secure liberty) and apathy (nothing we do will matter anyway), along with historical inaccuracy.

However, despite the intellectual landmines it presents, we could do with something of the spirit of Whig History today. This is because, unlike the Ultimate Right adherents, followers of Whig History can recast dying as having to do with the enjoyment of life. Whereas the 'right not to die' lobby meet death with the fear of more death, Whigs can find purpose in death - namely a noble sacrifice for a liberal cause. This imposition of meaning on to otherwise rather baffling and disorienting carnage can provide the motivation for us lucky enough to be alive to wish to live in liberty. Did those people die so we could be less free, or more? Would they wish that we lived our lives in the fullest freedom, or have us be preoccupied with a fear that we will suffer their fate? I've decided to go with life over death; with the statues over the black concrete blocks.

Ben Walford is studying politics at Warwick University, and has worked as an intern at spiked.

(1) 'Europe: Where's the spirit of liberty now', by Bruno Waterfield

(2) PM's press conference (05/08/05)

(3) 'The Whig Interpretation of History' (1931), by Herbert Butterfield

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