“Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent. of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.”
- AJP Taylor, historian. The funny thing is, that AJP Taylor was a lifelong socialist and therefore, supported policies and ideas that led, directly and indirectly, to the destruction of some of the liberties he wrote about in this much-cited passage, on page one, from his classic, English History, 1914-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).. Like many of his generation, he was naive about the Soviet Union, to put it kindly, although he did break with communism while remaining a lifelong member of the Labour Party. But as he would respond, much of the damage to British freedoms mentioned in this passage had been done by the calamity of the First World War and its aftermath. And piecemeal changes – starting in the late 19th Century and arguably hastened by the arrival of the mass franchise, made these liberties vulnerable. But are we being starry-eyed about Victorian-era liberties? Is he describing a myth or a reality? There’s a question to stir up the commenters.
I see that Ed Driscoll of Pajamas Media liked this quote too. I imagine it resonates with American readers quite as much as with a Brit.