THERE is no such thing as perfect freedom, nor total tyranny. All nations and people operate on a spectrum. Neither Ayn Rand’s world nor Panem, of Hunger Games fame, have ever existed outside the test tube and in my view that’s a good thing.
To an extent, where you believe yourself to be on the freedom spectrum is a state of mind. But ask yourselves: are we as free as a decade ago, or perhaps a generation ago? And where do we think we are heading?
We can probably agree that post-war East Germany was as close to a totalitarian state as modern Europe has experienced. But there were moments of lightness and jollity and not all were caged all the time.
In the spellbinding film Ballon, about a family from East Berlin trying to escape to the West, one is struck by the incidentals of family life: fun, film and spontaneity from the gaze of the Stasi. Trips to the theatre, meals out (even if East German dumpling was rather grim), outings to the countryside. Even there at times there was a sense of normality and personal freedom.
The viewer is also struck that both the potential escapers and the East German State, the Stasi in particular, were somewhat amateurish. The Stasi were ruthless and wicked for sure, but their reach was far from total and they suffered from a bureaucratic inefficiency that is so often the hallmark of controlled states.
They did possess the power of massive sanction, often brutal, but thankfully it was not matched with the current technological power of digital surveillance, algorithms and control. Theirs was a world of informants and paper and pen.
We can also agree that until recently Britain was at the freer end of the spectrum, as was much of the western world. Of course a successful society must be bound by sane but minimal rules, conventions and decency. Respect for the other, if you like.
We have been blessed in this land for generations with its generally fairly light government, and from that civil society has flowed. It wasn’t for nothing that the leftist historian AJP Taylor was able to write in his 1965 English History: ‘Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman.’
It prompts the question: how free Britain is today? Do Taylor’s comments still hold? The starting point must be that while we are virtually all much more affluent as a result of technological and productivity advance, we are much less free than we were when Taylor wrote and indeed than even a decade ago.