ED WEST on the fantasy of the ‘free-born Englishman’.
Guffawing and thigh-slapping his way through the 1938 version of Robin Hood, Errol Flynn stops at one point to tell the audience he is fighting as a “free-born Englishman” and fighting for a “free England”.
This obviously wasn’t really about attitudes in 12th century England and no one seriously believed it was; it was about Englishmen, or Britons, today, and it’s safe to say that on the eve of a Second World War the idea of a 20th century “free-born Englishman” was a potent one.
It was believed to be as much a part of the national character as the repression of Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter, or the stoicism in all those roles played by Kenneth Moore. An Englishman was freedom-loving and would never submit to tyrants big or small, whether French-speaking sheriffs or Hitler, or indeed petty busybodies closer to home.
But that was 80 years ago, and if it was ever true, the idea of the freeborn Englishman has been quietly put to bed by the pandemic, exposed as nothing more than an empty myth.
Last February, with events in China giving us a grizzly image of our future and the full horror starting to dawn, that myth was often trotted out. We were repeatedly told that the British were too much of a freedom-loving race to tolerate similarly authoritarian measures. The ghosts of John Bull, John Wilkes and Robin Hood would rise up within us to resist this tyranny.
Boris Johnson said as much, telling the House in Commons in September that: “There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world: our country is a freedom-loving country… It is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary.”
The experts had even hesitated to act last February because they feared that British people would not be able to tolerate lockdown for long. There would be riots, some thought.
Yet like the military experts of the 1930s who predicted that aerial bombing would shatter morale, they were completely wrong. While Italy and the Netherlands have had serious anti-lockdown disturbances, the British public have accepted it with remarkably little in the way of complaint. They may not have liked it, and some rules may have been bent a little, but compliance has generally been strong — with an inevitable decline during the summer.
Not only that but lockdown is popular as a policy. Wildly popular, you might say. The prime minister has been miles behind British public opinion in every restriction he has reluctantly imposed, out of touch with a population who, as a whole, don’t seem to especially love freedom.
Although right-wingers were the early doomongers about Covid, the issue soon realigned along culture war lines, with progressives far keener to lock down. Yet there was a big difference. While Nigel Farage flirted with the idea of lockdown scepticism, it didn’t last long because, Farage, whatever else people say about him, has a very good sense of what the British public think.
The UKIP position on immigration was hugely popular during the Blair, Brown and Cameron eras; likewise crime, another area where right wing populist positions regularly poll 60 or even 70%. But lockdown scepticism? It barely made it into double figures.
On almost every question relating to lockdown and Covid, the British public are far less liberty-loving than the government.
They’re happy with closing borders, and they’re keen on putting people in quarantine. Some 70% support GPS trackers for people entering the country.
Are vaccine passports a hugely controversial infringement on our liberties? Not really — most people want them used for hospitality, offices, and even social gatherings. And the public favours compulsory jabs for nurses, regardless of how nurses themselves feel about this.
Over three quarters of the population can cheerfully contemplate social distancing measures remaining in place until autumn. There is widespread, even overwhelming support for police enforcing lockdown measures.
A majority of Britons even think a 10-year jail sentence for lying about your country of departure is fair, while 13% think it’s not harsh enough! I wonder what proportion of that 13% would support actually hanging them.
All the predictions that the British public would not tolerate harsh lockdown measures are completely contradicted by the polls, which show the Chinese government to be more in tune with the great British public than Boris Johnson is.
Contrary to all the predictions that we would never tolerate surveillance in return for the end of Covid, I reckon the average Englishman would happily have a microchip in his arm if it meant he could go down the pub.
Sure, this is the home of Magna Carta and we can make a reasonable claim to being the birthplace of liberalism, but John Locke’s ideas were much more influential in the United States than in his home country.
Like much of our politics, our political-psychological idea of ourselves comes from the Civil War era. It was around that time that the phrase “free-born Englishman” was coined by Leveller John Lilburne, and they put him in prison.
Had YouGov been around in the 17th century, a significant majority would probably have supported this, with another 13% wanting him burned to death, and the liberty-loving sect to which Lilburne belonged, the Quakers, were deeply unpopular for a long time.
The Levellers believed that Englishmen had once been free, a natural liberty that had been crushed by the Norman Yoke; before that foreign occupation brought about the class system and privilege, free Saxons sat around in the forests of Olde England, presumably talking about cricket and the weather. It’s an appealing national myth and, of course, completely untrue; slavery was widespread in Anglo Saxon England, before being abolished by the Normans.
Likewise, Lilburne thought that free-born Englishmen had their rights laid down by Magna Carta: “the ground of my freedom,” as he said, “I build upon the Grand charter of England”.
Magna Carta, although it had nothing to say about the ordinary peasant, did evolve to restrain royal authority — but even here it has been more influential in the United States, where its legacy can be read in the constitution (Clauses 39 and 40, for instance, influencing the Fifth Amendment).
Although three clauses are still on the statute books in England, attempts to make Magna Carta a sort of sacred English text of freedom have always been quite a fringe affair.
Among the wilder shores of the lockdown sceptic movement, there are modern-day sects of the sort who cite Magna Carta Clause 61 to oppose Covid measures, claiming it allows “for lawful dissent and rebellion” and that businesses don’t have to close under Covid-19 regulations.
That Clause 61, which gave the leading barons the right to overthrow the king, did not appear in the approved 1225 version of Magna Carta makes no difference to their enthusiasm for this idea.
It’s a myth, based on an idea of the English as being inherently free. Yet these groups are minuscule, and for most people our supposedly sacred freedom is not thought about much; Oliver Cromwell was probably onto something, public opinion-wise, when he referred to the document as Magna Farta.
And whereas America has the First Amendment, the British have come to accept a huge number of hate speech laws down the years, with Blair’s government being particularly illiberal on this issue, to the extent that police are now investigating 120,000 “non-crime” hate incidents.
Indeed, so well-known are the Britons for being downtrodden by overzealous, interfering government authorities that there is a meme in other English-speaking countries called “have you got a licence for that, mate?” making fun of us.
We are now the most spied upon country outside of the People’s Republic of China, London being the only non-Chinese city in the top 10 of CCTV global hotspots. And despite this, CCTV is very popular among the British public.
Perhaps it’s because the British love spying on people, which certainly is a national characteristic dating back to Francis Walsingham. Or perhaps we like being spied on. We think the reduction in crime justifies the loss of liberty, just as the reduction in coronavirus deaths does.
In which case, which people are being referred to when we are told that “British people will never accept these sorts of restrictions”?
There is, it’s true, a strong liberal and Whig tradition in Britain, of which Boris Johnson is an inheritor, but they are certainly not the majority. On the political axis the median British voter sits somewhere in the top left quadrant, neither economically nor socially liberal, with culturally conservative and redistributive views.
The largest block after that are the progressives, who care most about equality and have barely-concealed authoritarian leanings. Then there are the genuine liberals, of which there are about 17 in Britain.
We tend to group like this because the major driving force in the British psyche is not liberty but fairness, and its step-brother spite. This is a country which hates benefit scroungers yet gets hugely sentimental about the issue of free school meals, because its people hate the idea of someone cheating the system. The one SW1 story that broke through with the public in recent years was the Dominic Cummings Barnard Castle saga — because it upset people’s sense of fairness.
The British are, in fact, quite conformist and placid. The French riot about literally anything, while after epic levels of political incompetence and 120,000 deaths, the worst that’s happened here is someone projecting “Boris is a wet wipe” on parliament.
There’s a reason why an Englishman in the late 1930s might have seen himself as uniquely free-born and liberty-loving. Our political history and lucky geography has graced us with centuries of moderate politics, avoiding the ideological nightmares of our neighbours. But that doesn’t make us particularly freedom-living; indeed if it anything it makes us complacent about our good fortune.
Most of the British public still support Robin Hood against the Sheriff of Nottingham, but not because they care about freedom. It’s because they care about fairness. They don’t want a free England, they want a fair England.
Ed West is deputy editor of UnHerd and author of Tory Boy
This article was first published by UnHerd