The Virtue of Freedom

by Theodore Dalrymple (April 2007)


Some years ago, before Anthony Blair became Prime Minister of the benighted islands from which I write this, a newspaper got wind of the fact that I had not had a television for nearly thirty years. Would I, it asked, watch television for a week and report to readers what I thought of it. The newspaper said it would provide me with the television.

I agreed, but on one condition: that at the end of the week, the newspaper took the television away again. The editor thought this an odd condition, but accepted it.

The television duly arrived and I plugged it in. The first programme I saw after a gap of thirty years was one of those American shows in which individuals and families expose their social pathology to the idle gaze of millions. A middle-aged, lower middle-class woman was complaining about the conduct of her three daughters, aged (if I remember right) 12, 13 and 14. They had left home, and were now – if the mother was to be believed – drug-taking prostitutes. 

At this point in the narration, the presenter of the show intervened and announced that the daughters were in the studio, and asked the live audience to give them a warm welcome. The three drug-taking prostitutes aged 12, 13 and 14 duly came trippingly down the stairway of the studio set, to a storm of applause as if they were conquering heroines.

I confess that I was transfixed by this. It was both terrible and fascinating, rather like a rattlesnake. And I was soon to realise that these ‘reality’ shows (do they reflect reality or mould it?) have scouts – I cannot in all conscience call them talent scouts – everywhere, even in remote regions of the globe such as the one in which I happened to be practising medicine.

Just around the corner from my hospital lived a man notorious for his drinking, which led to various medical crises. On a bed, he resembled nothing so much as a beached whale. One day I was called to his house because he was reported to be dying. I rushed round as fast as I could, only to be told by one of his daughters that I could f… off, I wasn’t needed any more. In the meantime, apparently, he had revived.

He had three daughters, who were as cetacean in their body habitus as he. A reality show in the United States somehow got hold of the fact that all three daughters had had children, the apparent physical impossibility of it notwithstanding, by the same man. For this tremendous achievement, mothers and father were paid a considerable sum to exhibit themselves, like freaks, on the show: encouraging some, no doubt, to go and do likewise.

A short while later, my wife and I happened to watch an interview by a minor and singularly silly comedian of a man who called himself Tony Blair. We had never seen him before, and what he said was so trivial and facile, and his appearance on such a show was so completely undignified, that we assumed that it was someone imitating the well-known politician of that name rather than the man himself. It was only later that we discovered that it was indeed the future leader of our country, and no mere impersonator of him; we were not reassured.

It might be argued that, in a demotic age, politicians have to consent to indignities if they are to be elected; if so, it is hardly surprising that we repeatedly elect nonentities distinguished only for their ambition and relentless pursuit of office. Unfortunately, mediocrity and ambition often combine with vast self-regard; and there is no better example of it than Anthony Blair.    

It is not appreciated in America just how ferocious and inveterate an enemy of freedom Mr Blair is. Perhaps the most dangerous thing about him is that he doesn’t know it: he thinks of himself, on the contrary, as a guardian of freedom, perhaps the greatest such guardian in the world. But his government has created 3,000 new criminal offences in ten years, that is to say more than one per working day, when all along the problem in Britain was not a insufficiency of laws, but a lack of will to enforce those that we had. The law is now so needlessly complex,  and so many laws and regulations are promulgated weekly, daily, hourly, without any parliamentary oversight, that is to say by administrative decree appropriate to a dictatorship, that lawyers themselves are overwhelmed by them and do not understand them. There could be no better recipe for the development of a police state.

It would be almost correct to call Mr Blair a fascist, were it not for the fact that he is completely unaware of it, and the notion of an unconscious fascist seems ridiculous. His emphasis on youth as the source of all wisdom and strength is reminiscent of Mussolini (he is slightly less emphatic about it these days, now that he has aged so considerably); his notion of the Third Way (something that is neither capitalism nor communism) has distinctly fascistic overtones, and reminds one of that very great political philosopher, Juan Domingo Peron; and he once claimed the Labour Party, of which he is the leader, is ‘the political wing of the British people,’  which is less than reassuring for the 75 per cent of the British adult population who did not vote for him at the last election. (This cardinal fact, incidentally, has never really obtruded very much on his consciousness, or given him pause to wonder whether, on the basis of such slender support, he has the moral authority to change society in whatever way he thinks best.)

I don’t mean that Britain is just like Mussolini’s Italy, of course; history does not repeat itself in this simple way. But the surveillance of the British population is now among the most complete of any population that has ever existed. The average Briton, for example, is photographed 300 times per day as he goes about his normal, humdrum existence. Britain has an astonishing percentage of the world’s CCTV cameras in operation – something like a third of them.  We now live in a security state. The wards of public hospitals are locked, and in the hospital in which I worked it was impossible even to get into the lavatories without knowing a secret code. The government has spent tens of billions on mad schemes to collate information electronically about us all, allegedly for our own good, whether we like it or not. None of these schemes has worked, thank goodness, or was ever going to, and the expenditure looks more and more like a giant malversation of funds in favour of the government’s favourite IT companies; but the very proposals, irrespective of whether they were ever workable or not, told us a lot about the government’s attitude to liberty.

The latest mad  – and extremely bad, vicious, totalitarian – proposal by Mr Blair is that every British child should be screened for criminal tendencies before they have developed. Once the statistical stigmata have been discovered, the child will be handed over to the experts who will carry out their ‘interventions’ to prevent further criminalisation. The state, in short, will repair the damage that the social structure that it has so assiduously fostered and encouraged over the last few decades has done. This would all be beyond satire if it were not for the fact that Mr Blair and his government takes it seriously. Mr Blair is always on the lookout, not for new worlds to conquer, but for new worlds to poke his nose into and to ruin, or ruin further.

How are we to explain the obvious assault on liberty in Britain? I don’t think any overall plan has been formed; there is no conspiracy of evil men around a table in the dead of night.

It is far worse than that, and more sinister because more difficult to oppose. A little coterie of evil men could, at least in principle, be opposed and defeated. But Mr Blair and his acolytes are not evil men in the sense that they perform acts which they know to be bad: they are much too accomplished at self-deception for that. They are able to present themselves, not entirely untruthfully, as motivated by a desire to do good, and thus they muddy the waters until the waters are not even translucent, let alone transparent.  

Nevertheless, Mr Blair and his acolytes understand viscerally if not consciously that serious social problems are their locus standi in their drive to achieve complete control of the population. Social problems, when they are on a sufficiently large scale, create two large classes of dependents: those who are dependent on the government because of their own behaviour, and those who are employed by the government to alleviate the inevitable consequences of that behaviour. In other words, a very large vested interest is created in the continuance of the very behaviour that causes social problems. 

That is why a government such as Mr Blair’s appears to be so very active in trying to solve problems, for example that of the educational failure which is prevalent in Britain, but so seldom seems to achieve anything. Never in the field of human history, in fact, has so little been achieved by so many at such great expense. The solutions that are always proposed are little more than work-creation schemes for the ever-increasing numbers of graduates in useless subjects. If, in the meantime, those solutions have destructive effects upon our liberties, well, so be it.

The type of social structure from which the majority of child delinquents in Britain emerge is by now sufficiently well-known, and would be intuitively obvious to anyone who spent a day or two walking through a British town or city. I need hardly rehearse the characteristics of that social structure, or rather lack of structure, at least on the household level: households in which the members are constantly shifting, in which there is no stability, in which the gratifications of the moment, such as drinking to excess and drug-taking, are the supreme and only good, and so forth.

Yet the government refuses to undertake the smallest step in encouraging more stable households in the most vulnerable strata of society, very much the contrary. It will not even go so far as to recognise the most obvious truths about the social structure that it has encouraged with its policies. The reason for this is that, were it to do so, and were it as a result to take the most appropriate actions to solve the problems, the size and importance of the government would have to shrink rather than increase. And that would never do for megalomaniacs.

The assault on freedom in Britain in the name of social welfare is an illustration of something that the American founding fathers understood, but that is not very congenial to the temper of our times: that in the long run, only a population that strives for virtue (with at least a degree of success) will be able to maintain its freedom. A nation whose individuals choose vice rather than virtue as the guiding principle of their lives will not long remain free, because it will need rescuing from the consequences of its own vices.

In Britain, it is not so very long ago that most – of course not all – people had an idea of virtue that was intensely focussed on their own individual conduct, irrespective of whether they were rich or poor. People did not in general believe that poverty excused very much. One of the destructive consequences of the spread of sociological modes of thought is that it has transferred the notion of virtue from individuals to social structures, and in so doing has made personal striving for virtue (as against happiness) not merely unnecessary but ridiculous and even bad, insofar as it diverted attention from the real task at hand, that of creating the perfect society: the society so perfect, as T S Eliot put it, that no one will have to be good.

It is that kind of society in which Mr Blair and his acolytes believe; by happy co-incidence, they also believe that they are the very men to bring it about. If it means that power has to be delivered up into their hands and the hands of the vast apparatus they direct, that every child must be surveyed for criminal tendencies and then handed over to psychologists, social workers, probation officers, counsellors, psychiatrists, and so forth, all at the expense of freedom – well, it is a price worth paying, both for those who pay it and those who do not.   


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