Friday, 12 June 2015

Liberty and liberalism

The Independent is running a series on the constitution of the United Kingdom in this year of celebration of Magna Carta. Oliver Wright has written a provocative contribution on the supremacy of parliament (trumping ECHR, EU legislation and presumably TTIP) but what stimulated me most was Andy McSmith's opener on democratic liberty.

He writes:

Most educated people in the English speaking world have also heard the famous passage from the 1776 American Declaration of Independence, which was indirectly influenced by Magna Carta. It says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

Actually, these truths are not “self-evident”. They are not evident at all, for instance, in North Korea, or in parts of the world ruled by religious zealots. When Thomas Jefferson wrote them, he was being deliberately provocative, throwing those words in the face of the British property-owning class who believed that they had a right to hold arbitrary power in check, but did not extend that right to American colonists. Jefferson himself, despite his proclaimed belief in an “unalienable right” to liberty, was a slave-owner*.

Yet the fact remains that, in our liberal democracy, we do believe that citizens have unalienable rights – and not just those listed by Thomas Jefferson. Most people in modern Britain would say that a UK citizen has a right to free speech, a right to express their sexuality, a right to belong to any legal organisation he or she chooses to belong to, a right to be paid if he or she is in work; some might add to these a right also to have paid work, and a right to eat, to be housed, to be educated, and to be cared for when old or sick. But the legal document that defines all these rights does not exist. They are certainly not found in Magna Carta

It seems to me that the Liberal Democrat constitution picks up where Magna Carta et al. leave off.

* although a paternalistic one, whose attitude to the practice was complicated.

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