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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
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Freedom lost

P1014488 The freedom to travel has been restricted for too long. Photograph by author, all rights reserved.

Three years before she became Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher addressed a meeting of the Exeter Conservatives. During her speech, she set out what freedom means. Among other things, she noted that it "is the right to move freely within a country - or to leave it."*

It is not for me to presume what the great lady's opinion would have been on the year which has just passed, but this particular attribute of freedom weighed heavily upon my mind yesterday evening as the UK took a decisive step back from international travel mere weeks after a tentative and lacklustre opening on 17th May.

Prior to that date, travelling internationally for leisure had been banned for months, while those whose travel did meet the Government's onerous criteria were subjected to accusatory questioning at their port of departure and obliged to fill out a so-called "Travel Declaration Form" before being allowed to leave the country. The form (now no longer required) was an exit permit in all but name - an abhorrent imposition once the preserve of communist states like East Germany - which saw our freedom to leave the country cruelly ripped away under the pretence of keeping us safe.

Restrictions on international travel are but one example of what has become a recurring theme throughout the Covid-19 pandemic - namely this nation's consistent acquiescence to fear over freedom. Offered "safety" by the Government - whether in the form of lockdowns, travel bans, or the myriad other impositions we have been forced to endure - the people stepped forth and grabbed it at the expense of the liberties won and defended for them over centuries by their forebears.

Of course, we weren't the only ones - most of the world went stark raving mad in 2020 - but that is of little comfort. We British are heirs to a great inheritance of freedom, and the ease and willingness with which we surrendered it to "protect the NHS" (the NHS, it need hardly be said, is supposed to protect us), "control the virus" and "stay safe" is a tragedy of historic proportions. It is also not one from which we will soon recover and in years to come we will surely see our economic freedom infringed by tax hikes as the Treasury seeks to compensate for the past year's spending splurge. Big Government is back - and with it the tax and spend policies which drove the UK to near ruin in the 1970s.

In surrendering our freedom, we quickly became a nation of dependents. Dependent on furlough. Dependent on arbitrary guidelines. Dependent on the government dictating every aspect of our existence. We lost the ability to make our own decisions. To assess risk for ourselves. To take responsibility for our own lives. We stood on our doorsteps and clapped for our hopeless health service because we were told to do so and deluded ourselves into thinking that it is the envy of the world because we are told it is. We lived, and continue to live, in fear because we have been told to do so, and we have stopped thinking for ourselves because we have been convinced that independent thought is dangerous endeavour.

Benjamin Franklin once said that "those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." He was right in theory, but in practice those who bargain their liberty in exchange for (the illusion of) safety are not only deserving of neither, but guaranteed to end up with neither. As a society, we have foolishly come to believe that surrendering our freedoms and sacrificing our everyday lives will keep us safe. This is simply untrue. There is no guarantee of safety in life. Everything we do carries risk - including the maintenance of a sedentary lifestyle for a year.

Worse still, there is no end in sight to this nonsense. Although the vaccine programme was heralded as our ticket back to normality at the start of the year, the cynical exploitation of fear continues six months later - constant coverage of new variants (which might more aptly be termed "scariants") being the primary lever used to justify continued restrictions on everyday life. Lamentably, the strategy appears to be working and opinion polling consistently shows widespread public support for, among other things, draconian entry requirements at the border. This raises some obvious questions: Do the supporters of these measures realise that they are not restricting the freedom of some faceless group of foreigners, but their own? Do they have any idea that border measures designed to keep people (and, allegedly, the virus) locked out keep them locked in? Why have we come to regard fellow human beings not as friends, family and neighbours, but as harbingers of our own doom?

Over 50% of adults in the UK have now been fully vaccinated, but still the relentless drumbeat of fear continues - the Government no doubt under considerable pressure from 24/7 hysterical media coverage and let off the hook by a pathetic excuse for an "opposition" whose only criticism is that the executive's drastic measures don't go far enough. Already, agitation has begun in earnest for the continued imposition of restrictions beyond 21st June. "Freedom Day," as it has rather disingenuously been termed, may be in sight but is beginning to feel increasingly out of reach. "Just a little longer!" "One last push!" How many times have we heard similar phrases bandied about as justification for the rolling curtailment of our liberty? We have become prisoners to caution - obsessed with case numbers even as the remarkable vaccine rollout breaks the link between infections and deaths.

Freedom is, first and foremost, a concept. But it is not abstract. It is real. It is tangible. And we have forsaken it. Until we get it back, little else matters; every Conservative victory in a former Labour heartland will be hollow until the Government proves itself willing to restore and defend that which has been unjustly wrenched from us. All is for naught if we the people are not free.

I'll end this piece with another prescient excerpt from Thatcher's speech to the Exeter Conservatives in 1976 and invite you to pose yourself this question: Is the UK still the country of Thatcher, or, asleep at the wheel, has it turned into one of those fear-ridden nations she warned us about?

"Looking round the world, it is all too clear that freedom of action and expression are denied in many countries. Where we have freedom, they have fear. Freedom can be lost more swiftly than it is gained. Even in a parliamentary democracy a Government machine can gradually and silently whittle our freedom away.*"

*https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/102963 

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