Friday 19 October 2018

Defining freedom

The actor, Michael Caine, came in for some criticism yesterday for saying, in relation to the EU, that he would prefer to be poor and free than rich and enslaved.  As plenty of others were quick to point out, it’s fairly easy for a multimillionaire to say that when the real pain of impoverishment will be borne by someone else.  That is, though, a bit of an ad hominem attack; it seems to me that his basic point, namely that there is sometimes a trade-off between freedom and wealth is a valid one.  The point might be better made by someone with a few more financial worries, but the idea is a sound one.
Not everyone will draw the line in the same place; our individual personal circumstances inevitably affect our choices.  A well-fed slave might look at a free but hungry beggar and decide that he’s better off where he is, for instance, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that he supports slavery as a sound basis for an economy.  ‘Enslavement’ is also relative; a Marxist might argue that the relationship between capital and labour is such that all workers are, in effect, slaves, even if they haven’t yet realised the fact.
And it’s that question of defining what ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ mean that is my real issue with what Caine said.  For any state in the modern world, what does ‘freedom’ actually mean?  Clearly, when one country or state uses military power to over-run another and govern that second country in the interests of the first, that second country has lost its freedom in a very real sense.  But if those same two countries negotiate as equals to take certain decisions jointly, they remain independent sovereign countries.  Part of the problem with Brexit from the outset has been that some have been unable to distinguish between those two scenarios, whilst others have been deliberately unwilling to do so.
The result of that inability or unwillingness is that ‘taking back control’ has become a slogan of those who believe that the state in which they happen to reside should have the absolute right to make all its own laws in all fields; and such unthinking absolutism has taken hold in a substantial part of public opinion.  One of the aspects of this is the assumption that a particular state which exists today is the natural, God-given, order of things.  The fact that that state only exists as a direct result of historic military conquest which did indeed directly extinguish the freedom of other countries or states (even the unification of England is down to this process, let alone the addition of Wales, Scotland and part of Ireland) is conveniently ignored.  It’s as though the passage of an unspecified and undefinable period of time validates conquest, and only joint decision-making through agreement is inimical to ‘national freedom’. 
I can agree in principle that freedom is something for which it is worth paying a price (although each of us will draw our own lines about how much freedom and how big a price), but for me there is more ‘freedom’ to be had by Wales having the right to join as an equal with other European nations in taking some decisions jointly than there will ever be in being subsumed in a larger state which insists on the absolute right to take all decisions in the centre and share sovereignty with no-one.


Anonymous said...

Aren't you conveniently forgetting that at no time were the people of Wales granted any 'human rights' until such a time as England subsumed the territory.

In other words, in a free Wales the Welsh were enslaved. In a subsumed Wales the Welsh found freedom.

I shall watch Adam Price negotiate this historical hurdle with great interest.

John Dixon said...

I don't think that I'm "conveniently forgetting" anything; I just don't recognise your entirely fictional version of history.