‘Progress’ has cropped up a lot in the media as the UK marks 50 years since the (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual sex in England and Wales and the wider social revolution of the 1960s has been celebrated. A recent documentary made the claim that Roy Jenkins had been more influential than any other politician in post-war Britain apart from Thatcher and Attlee due to the legal changes undertaken around the time he was Home Secretary from 1965-1967. It had a point, few can claim a more sweeping legacy. He consciously sought to create “a civilised society”, and encouraged a series of private members bills and some government legislation that overthrew centuries of legal and social tradition. These acts included the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the liberalisation of abortion laws, relaxing of divorce law, the suspension of birching, ending theatre censorship and the effective abolition of capital punishment. Of course Jenkins was in the right place at the right time, but he certainly played a significant role in coaxing a nervous Cabinet and Prime Minister into supporting these significant changes to Britain’s social legislation.
Today Jenkins is hailed by many as a hero of social progress, although some religious conservatives still regard the changes he fostered, particularly the liberalisation of abortion laws, as deeply problematic, and some on the left in politics regard his social views as the saving grace to make up for his economic liberalism. There is a widespread sense, which I share, that the changes of the 1960s have made Britain a more open and tolerant society. Yet, anyone who regards such progress as irreversible should be wary of the lessons of history. Attitudes to differences in sexual preferences and to sexual behaviour more widely have varied enormously over the centuries, from the more tolerant attitude of the Romans at times, to a strict retrenchment of social liberalism in the 19th century after a somewhat freer Georgian period. The BBC’s Gay Britannia series of programmes has vividly portrayed the harsh reality of what life was like for gay men and women before decriminalisation. A chokingly claustrophobic world, deep wells of unhappiness, sham marriages where women were just as much a victim as their closeted gay husbands. To 21st century eyes the restrictions on personal freedom imposed by the state and societal attitudes are clearly wrong and unnecessary, indeed impossible to comprehend, but to imagine we have moved beyond this state sponsored cruelty and control forever is a dangerous assumption.
Yes, the UK now has equal marriage but today gay men are tortured and put to death by the state in Africa and many other parts of the globe, homophobic murders still happen regularly in the UK. To broaden out beyond the situation for people of different sexual orientation, as the BBC gender pay gap debate showed recently, men and women are still not equal, and as the Prime Minister said in her first speech on the steps of Downing Street a year ago, people born to ethnic minorities still face many more hurdles in life. On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which was in part at least about greater personal religious choice, the fallout from an ongoing reformation in global Islam are threatening the freedom of millions of individuals. Political discourse in the West has coarsened, what were previously thought to be unsayable things about minorities and women have been uttered by the successful winner of last year’s US Presidential election. All of which is to say that the blessed freedom we largely enjoy in the UK today should never be taken for granted, we are truly lucky to be alive at this time.
Progress is not definable, it is in the eye of the beholder, but if we are to ensure that the current personal liberties we have survive into the future there is at least one fundamental lesson we should remember – economic and political freedom cannot be uncoupled, at least not permanently, as China’s growing social revolution is demonstrating. Milton Friedman would have been 105 this week, one amongst his many quotable remarks circulating on social media this week was “underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself”. Is it really pure coincidence that the railing against the free markets currently sweeping global politics in the protracted funeral procession in the wake of the 2008 financial crash has been accompanied by rising sirens of intolerance? Capitalism has suffered a crisis of confidence since 2008, but it is in all our interests to see it back off its knees, no better system has been invented.
There is a role for government in regulating markets and societies, but it behoves us all to be wary about empowering an overmighty state. Today government in the UK still tells shops when they are allowed to open and close, people what they can and can’t buy, where and when they can travel to a certain extent and myriad other ways we live our lives. Many of these may be sensible, but it is always wise to at least ask the question – why does the government need to regulate this? Big state politics such as those currently advocated by Corbynism always have unintended consequences, which is why so many liberals are wary of Corbynism, it is why people such as Roy Jenkins quit Labour when the left last took it over in the early 1980s. I am sure Jeremy Corbyn has no personal intention of curtailing any of the social freedoms the 1960s introduced, but he does believe that government should have a much greater say on our lives, where does that path eventually end? One only needs to read Orwell to have a sense of the risks.
Education, and political leaders promoting diversity of personal choices both have a role to play in safeguarding our social freedoms, but history would suggest economic freedom is by far the greatest protector of individual liberty. Growth of social freedoms in the UK over the last two decades followed the explosion in economic freedoms of the 1980s, just as the 1960s social revolution followed the dramatic rise of capitalist consumer society in the 1950s. There is sometimes a time lag as its effects percolate but in limiting the power of external forces over individual lives economic liberalism gives room for personal choice. Our best hope for future freedom is to trust in each other, not in the instruments of the state.