Freedom — The Old and New Joke

There has been a rumpus in Parliament over the tapping of a barrister’s telephone conversation with a solicitor and the passing on of the transcript to the Bar Council.


In defending the action the Home Secretary stated that this power is used “solely in cases involving the security of the State or for the purpose of detecting serious crime.” And who is the judge? The Home Secretary, of course, who has to give the permission. What a lot can be covered by “security of the State”! The opening of letters, for instance, for the alleged purpose of seeing if dollars are being smuggled, or tickets for the Irish Sweep.


But this is a “freedom-loving country,” as free as it always was. In the middle of last century the correspondence of Mazzini, the Italian patriot, was opened on the same plea. But we can go further back still.


On the 26th April, 1817, The Scotsman had an editorial article, from which we have extracted the following


“In this island, we have no inquisition to make out lists of books which it is unlawful to read. Our Ministry, although it seems to have the wish, has, fortunately, no power to imitate the example of these Holy Fathers and Familiars, with ropes about their waists. It has not yet got the stock of national reflection put under lock and key; nor can it take its stance before the storehouse of literature, and deal us out ideas and information by the ounce, and the drachm, and the scruple; or repulse with a tyrannical frown such as appear discontented with the small pittance of mental food allotted to them. Thought is here free, and has been so long free, that it can never be gathered in, or monopolised any more. The mind cannot be stripped of its acquirements, nor ideas prevented from generating other ideas, unless it was possible to blast the whole nation with a sudden stupidity.”


Now, that sounds good, doesn’t it? But wait a minute. In other columns of the same issue of the paper there were complaints about the incidence of the Seditious Meetings Bill, and a report of proceedings under this Bill, in which a debating society was refused a licence to hold debates, although it was pointed out that these debates on literature and philosophy had been carried on peaceably.


As a further instance of the freedom to put forward ideas the same paper for May 17th, 1817, is also interesting. Here is an extract:-


“On Thursday the important question was to be put to Ministers, whether it is their intention to move for the continuing the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. The answer will produce the most lively sensation in the country; for, in comparison with this, all other topics are of little account. It is in vain to say that the country is disturbed. All pretences of a domestic nature are done away; for there are not signs of sedition, but clamorous beggary, the result of distress, or of pillage from despair. The Spencean system (by which is meant the division of lands and goods among all classes of the community) is rapidly taking place, by the reduction of the higher classes to the middle state, and the middle to pauperism. The process is gradual but unremitting. Every day brings us all nearer to one level; and if we continue in the blind policy of applying such remedies to the national evil as the suspension of the Habeas Corpus, and enacting the gagging laws, the result cannot be mistaken.—We must sink into common ruin.”


The boasted freedom of thought seems to have been taking a walloping!


The latter part of the quotation is almost an echo of what we bear to-day. The rich are becoming poor—well, apart from its millionaires, the attenders of luxurious banquets and “coming-out” parties, the patrons of luxury cruises, and the like. After all, a Rothschild who has just died only left £11,000,000.