Although I am not old enough to have fought in the Second World War, like most of my generation I knew what we were fighting for – to preserve our cherished freedoms.
In fact, those freedoms were not cherished, they were taken for granted. It was thought axiomatic that a free-born Englishman (those were the days before language become prickly gender-sensitive) could pretty much say what he liked and go where he pleased, protected by the impervious accretion of centuries of common law. His home was his castle, his privacy a birthright. The state was a benign presence, but to be watched all the same. In that spirit of cautious suspicion, wartime identity cards were scrapped at the first opportunity. Petty authority where it existed was seen as something faintly preposterous, existing mainly to be mocked or ignored.
Britons had looked aghast and unbelieving at events in Nazi Germany, a country where family members snitched on each other, where authority was blindly worshipped, and individual identity subjugated by an all-powerful state. It could never happen here, we said. Not only would the English not put up with it, the English character would not allow it. After all, we hated sneaks with every fibre in our bodies. We were a peaceful, tolerant, reserved people happy to allow our fellow subjects (“citizen” was a foreign sort of world) to go about their business unmolested and untroubled.
How wrong we were. Now we know that we English – or British as we are told we should call ourselves – harbour in our midst an instinct to petty officialdom and intrusive bossiness as pernicious as any found in a totalitarian dictatorship. When we thought we were somehow immune to such perversions of freedom, we were kidding ourselves. There is in human nature a yearning for power over others, and some people in whom a tiny seed of authority is planted swell into overbearing tyrants. This, sadly, is as true of the English as of any other race, as we daily find to our cost.
Just consider what we have become. We are the most spied upon nation in the world; we cannot speak our minds for fear of breaking the rules of political correctness (people have lost their jobs for saying the wrong thing); our local authorities see themselves as our masters, not our servants; the police are unpredictable, unreliable and untrusted; we can no longer peacefully protest outside the Houses of Parliament or heckle an MP; the tentacles of the state grow ever more intrusive, reaching into our emails, our telephone calls, even our DNA; children as young as eight are recruited as “environment volunteers” encouraged to photograph or video neighbours guilty of dog fouling, littering or “bin crimes”; soon, we shall not be allowed to travel abroad without first reporting to the state.
Not only does the British appetite for the pleasures of exercising authority over others confound our delusions of immunity from such excess, it also surpasses that of our neighbours. Of all the European Union states, it is the British who enforce the Brussels regulations with the greatest zeal, often “gold-plating” the rules to make them still more onerous. By contrast, the French, whose Napoleonic history suggests a taste for the smack of firm government, ignore such imposts with a sublimely Gallic shrug.
How is it that the British of all people became a nation where the police stop a motorist for laughing and where a woman shopping with her 14-year old daughter is refused permission to buy a bottle of wine because she might give it to the child? A nation in which trees are chopped down lest a conker might fall on someone’s head? A nation in which council helicopters hover overhead, noting down homes where a conservatory or a pleasant view might be used as an excuse to levy a higher council tax? Where petty authority is not granted by the state, it is assumed nevertheless. Self-appointed organisations such as the National Obesity Forum and the Fat Panel spring into being unbidden and presume to lecture the population on its eating habits.
Erosions of liberty sneak up on us insidiously, one at a time, but the cumulative effect is ultimately catastrophic. For once surrendered, freedoms are not easily regained.
I mentioned the French and their admirable resistance to irksome regulation. They are also, when the mood takes them, given to rioting in the streets. The time has long passed to put aside our meek tolerance and do as the French do.