Can Brexit help reinvigorate freedom?

Can Brexit help reinvigorate freedom?

Earlier this week when Conservative peer Lord Debden warned the Government that in leaving the EU they must not “jettison historic freedoms”, he highlighted an important issue thrown up by Brexit: does exiting the EU pose a threat to freedom, for example, due to the loss of various rights and protections? Or alternatively, could leaving the EU provide a creative spark, a springboard to reinvigorating liberty and freedom?

A number of organisations and commentators have rather luridly speculated over the threat posed to freedom by Brexit. This week Amnesty International became the latest doom-monger, alleging that “the EU Withdrawal Bill is set to substantially reduce rights in the UK” and that “under cover of Brexit, the Government is planning to strip the British public of protections”.   

Before trying to ascertain how the UK might fare outside the EU, it’s worth asking whether the EU should be credited with delivering greater freedoms?

Take freedom of expression. Article 2 of 2007 Lisbon Treaty states the Union is founded on “the values of respect for human dignity, freedom [and] democracy”. Last year, however, the European Commission (in league with powerful IT companies such as Facebook) announced a Code of Conduct to ban “illegal online hate speech”. Given that what constitutes hate speech is subjective and often simply speech a complainant dislikes or disagrees with, not surprisingly we are seeing a surge in clampdowns, from the Catalan teacher arrested for criticising Spain’s Guardia Civil online, to larger scale actions including a mass blockage of twitter users in Sweden and coordinated raids on homes throughout Germany in response to Facebook posts. Far from extending civil liberties, extensive and arbitrary constraints are being placed on the freedom of expression of some 500 million people.  

Lest anyone assume, however, that leaving the EU will automatically recast the UK as a land of liberty, it is clear that Britain itself is no torch bearer of freedom – and arguably is ahead of the EU in threatening liberties. Counter-extremism policies with worrying society-wide implications have been pioneered in the UK; football fans are increasingly targeted for controls – from how they travel to what they chant; and advertisers and broadcasters are now routinely subject to interference. And that is before we get to the moral disease of self-censorship which seeks to avert the potential objections of a growing army of offence-takers and results in newspapers such as the Guardian deleting columns, theatres banning stage productions and galleries nervously removing paintings.

So if leaving the EU is not sufficient, how might Brexit help reinvigorate the case for freedom?

While Brexit is rightly celebrated as an act of rebellion against the EU, we should also recognise that the vote also amounted to a positive assertion of the freedom to make our own choices. This much was clear from post-referendum research showing that the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU according to nearly half (49%) of leave voters was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. Rather than fatalistically accept the status quo, Brexit points to the cheering news that people aspire to more scope to shape their circumstances and those of their communities beyond the imposition of the diktats of technocrats and experts.

To nourish that embryonic spirit of liberty we could start by asking afresh what is freedom and how can we encourage it to thrive through a new post-Brexit political culture.

That the European Commission introduced the Code of Conduct on hate speech relatively unchallenged suggests that although few people openly advocate new constraints and although freedom enjoys considerable rhetorical affirmation, nevertheless the case for liberty lacks a deeper, meaningful cultural endorsement. It is especially worrying that freedom often now seems a narrow, drab, largely technical affair, increasingly regarded as something to be bestowed upon us by the state or official body.  

By contrast, in the eyes of many of the great historical thinkers on freedom, including a longstanding British tradition running through Milton, Locke and Mill, freedom is associated with self-directed, autonomously determined activities, acts that support a broader human flourishing. Freedom in this sense is actively lived rather than passively received. Perhaps the post-Brexit spirit to be summoned is to reject smothering prescriptions as to actions and behaviours that are permitted, and to be more assertive that we can live and act in accordance with our own inclinations.

That, of course, is bound to throw up conflicts. But debating and working through such tensions can be creative and lead to new discoveries. What should national sovereignty mean for liberals keen on the principle of free movement? Are religious traditions a threat to freedom, or are new secular inspired suppressions of religious observances becoming a menace to freedom of conscience? Is identity politics helping us know ourselves better or reintroducing divisive labels? Is women’s liberation helped or hindered by #MeToo?

These are complex questions that seldom offer easy answers. But any young lover of liberty prepared to grapple with thorny issues of freedom in the post-Brexit world should apply now to come to Living Freedom.

Living Freedom is a three-day school which will explore contemporary ideas and ideals of freedom. Living Freedom takes place on 5 – 7 April in central London and is open to all 18-25-yr-olds. For the full programme and details of how to apply, please visit the Living Freedom website here.