Writing in The Telegraph (‘Why I love Great Britain’, 14 December), Canadian scholar Jordan B. Peterson informs us that
the people of Great Britain have granted the world a gift whose power stands in permanent opposition to our most appalling proclivities as individuals and societies. That gift is the political expression of the sanctification of the word — freedom in speech, imagination and thought: freedom to engage in the very process that builds and rebuilds habitable order itself from the chaos that eternally surrounds us. And that freedom is expressed in many ways, small and great, in the British Isles: in the wit of its people, in the effectiveness of its institutions, in the beauty of its art and literature, in the political and psychological presumptions that guide private discourse and public conception and action. And that is most particularly why I love Great Britain. And that is why, people of that realm (and not only of that realm), you should love her too, despite her sins, with your eyes lifted upward, your hope to the future, and the word of truth and faith on your tongues.
I don’t doubt that there have been important British thinkers (John Milton, J.S. Mill, and others) who’ve contributed to developing and strengthening the arguments in favour of freedom of expression, and indeed I greatly appreciate those contributions. But it’s a tad strong, not to mention reminiscent of Victorian hubris, to say that ‘the people of Great Britain have granted the world a gift…’ First, the ideas that underlie freedom of expression have a more diverse genealogy than Peterson seems to recognise, and second—this is what I will focus on—there is an immense countervailing tendency that has to be reckoned with here, namely, the historical and contemporary authoritarianism of the British state.
When Peterson says ‘the people of Great Britain’ have granted the ‘gift’ of ‘freedom in speech, imagination and thought’ to ‘the world’ he’s inviting us to reflect on Britain’s role as an imperial power and thoroughly undermining his own position (even as he registers Britain’s ‘sins’). Was this ‘gift’ conveyed by the crushing of slave rebellions throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the Caribbean? By the dictatorial administration of Crown colonies and protectorates? Is the ‘gift’ of freedom encapsulated by the Rowlatt Act of 1919, which allowed for those suspected of subverting British rule in India to be arrested without warrant and imprisoned without trial? Or is an even better example of Britain’s commitment to ‘freedom in speech, imagination and thought’ the government’s destruction of thousands of Colonial and later Foreign Office files during the postwar period in what was dubbed Operation Legacy? Granted, Britain’s settler-colonial offshoots are liberal democracies today, but the violent destruction of indigenous populations that paved the way for the coming into being of the US, Australia, New Zealand, etc. can’t be ignored. If the ‘appalling proclivities’ of Britain were rampant in the empire, its perhaps because there was no bulwark against power, no freedom to speak of, except in the development of anti-imperial resistance. Maybe freedom was gained in the course of harsh struggle rather than being bestowed on the poor benighted heathens as a ‘gift’ from civilised Oxbridge graduates.
Repression was also standard fare, albeit less harsh, when it came to radical ideas at home. As men like Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall, John Horne Tooke and others began to organise around demands for universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments in the late eighteenth century, intended to limit the ability of the aristocratic elite to carry on enriching themselves at the expense of the majority, Prime Minister William Pitt1 reacted by unleashing a raft of repressive legislation: the Treason Act 1795,2 the Seditious Meetings Act 1795, and the suspension of habeas corpus in 1798. Additionally, groups that demanded universal manhood suffrage like the London Corresponding Society (LCS) were infiltrated by government spies. A similar reaction attended radical organising for parliamentary reform in the early nineteenth century: shortly after the 1819 Peterloo massacre, the government of Lord Liverpool (known for its ‘Liberal Toryism’) introduced the Six Acts, which restricted public meetings, toughened laws against ‘blasphemous and seditious libels’, and gave greater powers of search and seizure to magistrates.
Coming to the present, our foreign policy continues to have precisely nothing to do with freedom; we have an Official Secrets Act that does not permit any public interest defence for the disclosure of classified information; the High Court has just ruled that political prisoner Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States for the crime of journalism; and the government seeks to pass a law that gives the police powers to restrict the duration, location, and noise levels of public demonstrations, and threatens the imprisonment of protesters for such heinous offences as causing ‘serious annoyance’ and ‘serious inconvenience’. We haven’t even gotten to the activities of GCHQ—is the British conception of liberty really so awe-inspiring?
I haven’t a clue what Peterson is talking about when he refers to the ‘effectiveness’ of Britain’s institutions at a time when those institutions are being undermined in astonishing ways, nor do I have a clue what he means when he says that British freedom is expressed ‘in the political and psychological presumptions that guide private discourse and public conception and action.’ At any rate, clearly Peterson, fresh from his time at Oxbridge, is writing romance. Nevertheless, it’s important for those of us who care about the facts get them straight. If Peterson stakes his love for Britain on its freedom and its dissemination of freedom, I fear his love is inversely proportional to his knowledge.
1 Pitt, perhaps fittingly, represented Cambridge University (Cambridge and Oxford historically elected MPs) in parliament.
2 Noting ‘the multitude of seditious pamphlets and speeches daily printed, published and dispersed with unremitting industry and with a transcendent boldness, in contempt of your Majesty’s royal person and dignity, and tending to the overthrow of the laws, government and happy constitution of these realms’, the Act made it illegal on pain of death to ‘compass, imagine, invent, devise or intend death or destruction, or any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maim or wounding, imprisonment or restraint, of the person of our sovereign lord the King, his heirs and successors…’