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February 22, 2005

How Free is Britain?

Posted by Anthony Daniels

How free a country is Britain? That is the question Anthony Daniels raises here. He argues that it would be dangerous to make false comparisons between Britain and truly unfree societies. But nevertheless in many regards Britain is a much less free society than it was.

A former colleague of mine was involved as an expert witness for the defendant in a civil case not long ago. A short time thereafter, he bumped into the judge at a golf clubhouse, who half recognised him.

"Are you a doctor?", he said.

"Yes", replied my colleague.

"And weren't you a witness in a case recently?"


The judge then asked him what he thought of the outcome. My colleague replied: "I think that the defendant would have received a fairer hearing in a kangaroo court run by generals in a South American military dictatorship".

I need hardly say that this remark brought the conversation to a close. But as reported, it set me thinking about the nature of our own freedom: how much freer are we than the citizens of a South American dictatorship (in the old days, where there were such things)? How free, exactly, are we?

I don't want to indulge in any self-pitying false comparisons. We have neither Gestapo nor Gulag, and it is an insult to all those who have experienced such things in their own flesh and blood (or bone, as they say in Spanish, perhaps more accurately) to compare our small tribulations with theirs. Irritations are not tragedies.

Nevertheless, I think we are less free than we used to be. The weight of the state is making itself everywhere felt. In my former professional life as a doctor, for example, I was obliged more and more to obey the dictates of ministers, rather than those of my medical beliefs. Whereas when I started out on my career all that was necessary to continue in practice was that I should be qualified and that I should refrain from behaving in an egregious or outrageous manner, by the time I retired this year I had to fulfil all sorts of requirements, all of which (in this age of evidence-based medicine) were quite without evidence of use or efficacy. But that is not the real point of such requirements: they are not there to improve the quality of medical practice; they are there to let us all know who is boss. And even if they were effective, which is intrinsically very difficult to prove, they would still represent a loss of liberty.

The fact is that the requirements laid down by ministers and their bureaucrats now take up fully half the time of senior doctors, when they could be doing clinical work, and this at a time of shortage of medical manpower. Most doctors, except for the apparatchiks among them, are profoundly unhappy about this, and are taking retirement as soon as possible. An increasing proportion of medical graduates never practice medicine, because the career is now so deeply unattractive to them, and they can do better elsewhere. Having brought this situation about, the government has launched its Improving Working Lives initiative, still failing to realise that it is the sinner, not the saviour.

There are other ways in which the state (by which I mean all agencies vested with public power) weighs increasingly heavily upon us, quite apart from the fact that we spend nearly a half of our working life paying for it. Here are a few random indicators:

1. The other day, at dawn, a large council vehicle parked outside my house with a very tall crane-like attachment, from the top of which photographs were taken of the neighbourhood, including my house. No one had felt obliged explain why, or for what purpose the photographs were to be used. The city is the council's and the fullness thereof.

2. Once a year, I receive through the post a letter marked with the exhortatory words, "Don't lose your right to vote register now". Added to this is the warning, in case I don't feel like exercising my right, "Failure to comply could lead to a 1000 fine". This is like being accosted by a beggar in the street who simultaneously appeals to your charity and menaces you if you don't cough up.

3. Every few months, I receive a letter from the TV licensing agency, who do not believe that I do not have a television. Once again I am threatened with a 1000 fine, and also warned that my house will soon be spied upon unless I buy a licence.

4. When I drive out in my car, I am immediately in the presence, every few hundred yards, of cameras. (The British are now the most heavily surveyed people by CCTV in the world. There were more than fifty CCTV cameras in the hospital in which I worked, most of them hidden.) I don't want to drive like a lunatic, and in fact conduct on the road is the one aspect of British behaviour that is still superior to that of most foreigners, and was so even before the cameras were emplaced. Even if they are effective, and reduce accidents, they add to the pervasive feeling of being spied upon by the state.

5. Our police now look more like an occupying military force than citizenry in uniform. They are both menacing and ineffectual (quite an achievement), and even law-abiding citizens are now afraid of them. If you want to ask the time, don't bother a policeman. I know from medico-legal experience that the police are far more interested in preserving themselves from the public than from preventing or investigating crimes, up to and including attempted murder. This is not because, as individuals, they are bad men and women; it is because of the same kind of bureaucratic regulation imposed on them as it has been imposed on doctors and other professions.

6. I own a flat in London and have recently learned that I must replace a boiler, not because it does not work or because it is dangerous, but because the regulations have changed, for reasons that it would be impossible to discover, except that they obey the rule of Keynesian economics to stimulate demand and keep it stimulated. And this in practice would mean that, if I still want gas heating, I have to put a new boiler in my living room.

And so it goes on and on. Very rarely nowadays do I feel myself free of the state. Its power has increased, is increasing and ought to be decreased. But I am not the man to do it. By retiring, I have withdrawn myself from it as far as possible. Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Anthony Daniels is a writer and retired earlier this year as a doctor.

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And - let me guess - not only must the boiler be replaced, but it, and all its various fixtures and fittings, may only be replaced by 'licensed' and 'qualified' gas fitters, electricians or plumbers, whether jointly or severally. And that any attempt to do the work yourself, even if you could, as a mere mortal, buy what is required to do so, would expose you to yet more regulatory action by the state?

The spirit of Dick Turpin is obviously alive and well in the UK, nurtured in the breast of the state and its hangers-on.



Posted by: llamas at February 23, 2005 05:27 PM

Maybe it's time for another Cromwell ;-)

Posted by: Ma r t i n @ b l o g b a t at February 26, 2005 02:25 AM

I'm not sure that you can class your experience as a doctor as being a loss of liberty.

You were either directly employed by the government, or (if a partner in a GP practice) contracted by the government to perform a service. Being told what to do by your employer is something that happens everywhere I would have thought.

Posted by: DM Andy at February 27, 2005 11:14 AM

I wish Daniels had told us a bit more about the specifics when he mentioned the "requirements" that his employers placed upon him in his practice of medicine. However, I suspect I know what he means.

I work with computers. Once, on a social occasion, I was speaking to an acquaintance who has been a police officer in a major metropolitan force for well over 20 years. I asked him what sorts of computer systems they used and wondered if they might need someone with my skills.

He scowled and said "Forgive me but you computer people are not in my good books right now. Some months ago, our computer people decided that they could improve and simplify a process that used to take us two hours. They recently unveiled the new and improved process: now it takes us NINE hours."

If this is the sort of requirements to which Daniels refers, I can well understand his frustration with his employers.

Posted by: Henry Reardon at May 4, 2005 09:49 PM

Why does Theodore Dalyrimple sometimes call himself Anthony Daniels? What's the strategy here? Pick a name and stick by it.

Posted by: daniels at September 27, 2005 03:51 AM

We may be heavily surveyed but, following recent security issues, the cameras now seem to be useful.

Mind you how did we get into this situation?

Posted by: Eric at February 22, 2007 05:41 PM

"I'm not sure that you can class your experience as a doctor as being a loss of liberty.
You were either directly employed by the government, or (if a partner in a GP practice) contracted by the government to perform a service. Being told what to do by your employer is something that happens everywhere I would have thought."

Indeed it is. But an employer can either cut its senior staff some slack and allow them to get on with what they do best, or tie them to desks and get them to produce mountains of paperwork. A good employer tends to delegate responsibility to competent people, to trust their judgment and allow them freedom to organise themselves and their work (they wouldn't have taken them on otherwise), whereas a bad employer (like the Labour government you laud on your blog) does not.

Also, the point should be made that technically *we* are his employers. We're his customers, too. And how many of us want a senior doctor ordered by the bumbling state to waste half his time producing paperwork for bureaucrats?

Posted by: Paul H. at July 5, 2007 09:31 PM

i see last post was 2007- i hope this site is stoll going 'cause it's still relevent! i came to the U. K. in 73 from the U. S. & stayed here 'cause it was a more civilised place than the 70's U.S.- today the U.S. is mad & this country bears no resembilence to the Britain i came to in 73. one example: stopped with no drivers licence on me in 73 i was told to produce it whithin 7 days-a civilised thing compared to the U.S. "go to jail "policy. this week my Son had a van taken off him by an undercover cop because his insurance was not on his data base (or he didn't know how to use his computer) telling him that his documents that he had on him were "nt worth the paper they were written on"! 200 later he will get the van back-guilty till proven innocent! i lament the passing of a civil way of life & do not wonder why the riots happend! jj

Posted by: jj nixon at September 9, 2011 12:04 AM
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