It’s a free country

At 3.15pm protesters moved towards the barricades facing the Houses of Parliament. "Come on, chaps, it’s a free country," said our half-blind friend. Scuffles broke out; police hats flew in the air. People were being pushed from behind and couldn’t go back. Women raised their hands in an attitude of surrender as the batons came down. An old man in a tweed suit and tie staggered out, blood pouring from his head.
Leanda de Lisle, the Guardian, 17 September2004

Who were these protestors storming the British parliament, only to be beaten back by baton-wielding policemen? Anarchists? Anti-globalisation campaigners? Foot soldiers in the class war? In a surprising way, perhaps the last guess would be right. The clue is in the use of the word “chap” by one of the activists. As any Brit instinctively knows, chaps are members of the aristocracy and upper-middle class. But what could have moved such bastions of the establishment to revert to tactics more associated with the radical left?

The answer is that, after years of promises, the government looks finally set to ban hunting with hounds. Supporters of the hunt have surprised many people with the strength of conviction expressed in their resistance to the law. Their main tactic has been to deny that hunting is a form of fun for posh people, and so even the malicious politics of envy which some claim is the real driver for abolition is premised on a mistake. Rather, hunting is part of a rural way of life which the metropolitan political class who want to ban it just don’t understand.

As usual, the debate is complex, and it is not my intention to attempt to resolve it here. What is of interest for present purposes is how the cry of “it’s a free country” is used by the campaigners to legitimise their hunts and their protests. The half-blind man in Leanda de Lisle’s article used it as his battle-cry, as protestors surged forward into police lines. More generally, the pro-hunt lobby sees abolition of the hunt as an attack on the freedom to pursue their own way of life.

But, although it has a stirring ring, saying that we live in a free country rarely gets us anywhere. In the case of the protests, there is not a free country in the world where protestors can do what or go where they like. For obvious reasons, the nation’s parliament is subject to restrictions of movement. So it is obviously absurd to suggest that, because it’s a free country, protestors are entitled to try to encroach on an area protected by the police. Yet this is what the protestors did, and they reacted with horror when the police refused to let them pass and beat them back. Perhaps the man who uttered the cry was metaphorically as well as literally half-blind.

Does the fact that Britain is a free country help the pro-hunt case more generally? Not at all. We are not free to do all sorts of things that cause harm to people, animals and even the environment. Indeed, among those who defend hunting on the basis that they are free to do as they will, you can be sure there are those who oppose abortion, and would be unimpressed by a woman asserting that she can do what she wants with her foetus, since it’s a free country. In both cases, the appeal to our freedom is a red herring, since the crux of the issue is whether we are causing unjustifiable harm. If we are, it is perfectly acceptable for a free country to make the causing of such harm illegal.

The most saying “it’s free country” can do is draw our attention to the presumption of liberal societies that we should be allowed to do what we want unless it harms others. But that “unless” is crucial. When the causing of harm is the issue – to our security, animal welfare or that of the unborn child – the focus of the debate must shift, and the free nature of the nation loses relevance.

Incidentally, this is not the only piece of persuasive but woolly rhetoric employed by the pro-hunt lobby. Many frequently claim that the ban is crazy because it turns otherwise law-abiding people into criminals. But criminals are often otherwise law-abiding. Obeying all the other laws is no defence against breaking one. Can you imagine someone pleading in their defence, “M’lud, I confess that I broke the plaintiff’s legs. But given that I am otherwise law-abiding, it would crazy to turn me into a criminal by convicting me for that!”

You could try of course. After all, it’s a free country.

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