“If Boris Johnson has a political philosophy it is that he will not restrict our liberties unless there is an overwhelming reason to do so”, tweeted BBC’s Robert Peston after the Prime Minister’s interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday morning. This isn’t a philosophy, of course; it’s a nebulous policy. The “overwhelming reason” to restrict people’s freedom is the appeal of despots throughout history.
“There are obviously a range of tougher measures that we would have to consider,” the Prime Minister explained. “I’m not going to speculate now about what they would be,” he unhelpfully didn’t explain, “but I’m sure that all our viewers and all our listeners will understand what the sort of things…”
It isn’t clear at all that people do understand the sort of things the Government intends to do to restrict our freedom beyond what ‘Tier 4’ lockdown already prohibits. Confine to homes? 6.00pm Curfew? Summary imprisonment for breaching the rules? Ceasing all public worship (again)?
Freedom has to be cherished: it is very hard-won, and so easily lost. As Theresa May observed in Parliament a few weeks ago: “I just want to make one word about public worship and echo the concerns of others. My concern is that the Government today, making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused for a government in the future with the worst of intentions, and it has unintended consequences.”
It absolutely does, not least because people seem to be forgetting the meaning of freedom possibly because they never understood the philosophy in the first place. Indeed, policy seems to have supplanted philosophy even in the minds of journalists like Robert Peston, who are supposed to interrogate political consistency, motive and cause.
We need to re-read and re-assimilate what we know about and understand by freedom, and then re-imagine and elaborate upon that understanding afresh in every generation. Perhaps we need a new revelation of freedom, for it is never fully known or ever fully realised. Rather like a conception of God or an understanding of theology, freedom is imperfectly mediated by human agency and elucidated by personal experience through a glass, darkly. If faith isn’t lived in practice, it dies. If freedom isn’t experienced in social and individual living, the culture in which it once flourished changes, sometimes so imperceptibly that fidelity to the philosophy becomes muddled, and our responsibility to the present generation becomes muted.
The task of those who love and cherish freedom is to make the case for it in all circumstances – even during a global pandemic. There will always be those who insist that freedom must be attenuated or prohibited for an “overwhelming reason”, but one person’s overwhelming is another’s slightly pressing. And don’t leave it all to The Freedom Association or the Free Speech Union or the Institute of Economic Affairs: it is for ordinary people to pursue and deliver this crucial social service. And Christians should certainly make the case for responsible freedom, being uniquely engaged in delivering a crucial theological service by virtue of being enabled to understand and expound the biblical texts of liberation.
There is a role for the Church here; a lay-led mission, if not a clergy-stimulated one, for the Church is ordinary people of sensitive openness, not higher interpreters of infallible knowledge. You don’t need expertise in freedom to be able to preach it and live it. There is no pre-understanding of freedom which does not need to be corrected and revised by the influence of experience: there is no priesthood of immutable consciousness, though there are certainly those who would set themselves up as such.
When the Church hears the Government mandating concentric circles of illiberalism with appeals to an “overwhelming reason”, even to the point of outlawing public worship, this shouldn’t be met with supine acquiescence or unquestioning complicity, but a thorough interrogation of the conceptual prejudices which constitute the emerging political horizon. What are the touchstones? Where is the openness to correction? Who will challenge the spiritual cost of inescapable scientific frameworks? There is no point professing to speak truth to power when the power you exert is comprised of the same truth.
You may think you have a meagre ability to articulate and describe the essence and meaning of freedom, but you can certainly recognise conceptions of regulation and the forces of prevention. When you cannot act as you would prefer, in conscience, to act, there is a visceral apprehension – revelation, even – of a violation. The Government is determined to keep you free from infection. What, then, should you insist on remaining free to do? Somewhere between that negative liberty and that positive liberty is a rational liberty waiting to be revealed. Do you adopt the absolute prohibition as your own restraint, accepting the rational authority and its criteria of conformity, or do you demand to know when the foundations of freedom became so outmoded that the national system of belief became ‘Save the NHS’?