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British Liberty

In the song Rule Britannia, it is said that ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves’: Paul Marks wonders exactly when that was most true.

When was liberty in Britain at its height?

First of all I discount the talk of either Celtic liberty or Anglo Saxon liberty being the peak of liberty on this island. We have little information of how much lords took in tribute/taxes so it is not possible to know whether the ancients paid less of their incomes in tax than, say, people in the mid 19th century.

What we do know about the Celtic age is that it was time of war and plunder (as various lords struggled for power) – so even if we choose to ignore such things as human sacrifice the Celtic age does not seem very libertarian.

It is true that in some periods the Anglo Saxons managed to set up a fairly orderly society in those parts of this island known as England – however (to give just one example of un-libertarian practice) the Domesday Book records that about one in ten people in the newly conquered England was a slave.

So when was liberty at its height in this island? Well the ‘official’ reply to this (the reply I have given to children studying history) is “the early 1870’s”. The figures we have indicate that central taxes reached their low point (as a proportion of total income) in 1874 – also in 1875 we have a orgy of statism. Many functions which had been optional for local councils become compulsory by a Act of 1875, the trade unions are put above the law of contract by an Act of the same year and (finally) taxes begin to rise.

True, the Education Act of 1870 (the Forster Act) meant that in some parts of the country there were boards of education demanding education rates before 1875 and there was a decline in agriculture (putting pressure on the poor rates in some places) after 1873. However, if we are basically interested in government spending, taxes and regulations the peak of freedom seems to be 1874 – and then everything goes down hill.

However – is the above all that matters? In my ‘gut’ I would not say the early 1870’s were the ‘great age of liberty’ – I would say that this sounds more like the 1820s. In the 1820’s no one expected local councils (which were closed corporations anyway – and remained so till 1835) to undertake a wide range of services ranging from the police to the supply of water. There were the Bow Street Runners and other such in London (reformed by Sir Robert Peel in 1829), but few government police outside London. The supply of such things as water may have been bad – but the science and technology of the day had more to do with that than the lack of government services.

Taxes may have been a higher percentage of national income in the 1820’s than in the 1870’s – but government was more restricted in its functions. Basically all central government spending was on defence and and the national debt (about half of total government spending went on the national debt – this was the real reason for high taxes at the time). The cruelty of some old practices (such as the death penalty being on the books for some 200 hundred offences) was being dealt with in the 1820’s – but government was not increasing in size of scope. On the contrary – taxes were being reduced, trade was becoming less restricted and the most well read writers on economic questions of the day supported freedom. Indeed some of these writers (such as Richard Whately of Oxford) did their best to expose such doctrines as the Labour Theory of Value as absurdities. The 1820’s were the age of Peel in criminal law reform and Huskinson and Robinson in the reduction of tariffs and taxes. The 1820’s were also the age of men like James Mill – rather than J. S. Mill.

More importantly there is the question of ‘intellectual atmosphere’. In the 1830’s there is a great ‘bubbling up’ (for want of a better term) of statist ideas. Edward Gibbon Wakefield with his ideas of centrally planned colonies being an answer to a “saturated home market” strides the stage (almost unknown today Wakefield was well known in the 1830’s and influenced many people – including Karl Marx). Such things as education get their first regular government grant (£30,000 in 1833 – small but it grow like a cancer). And there is a great growth in the MACHINE of government – the new reformed local councils (ready for all sorts of functions in the future), the collection of endless ‘data’ (via such things as the Births, Marriages and Deaths Act of 1836) and even seemingly free market reforms had a dark side. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 did indeed reduce the poor rates in rural areas – but it increased poor rates in the manufacturing cities, and it furthered the idea that poverty was national (rather than a local) matter – a ‘problem’ that might need the national government in order to be ‘solved’.

Some far sighted men (such as the Duke of Wellington) warned against the building of an ‘efficient’, ‘modern’ state but they lost the struggle. By the 1870’s the word ‘reform’ had normally come to mean an increase in the size of scope of government (local or national). The change in people’s minds meant that such things as the 1875 local government act (making a great number of functions compulsory for local government – whether the rate payers wanted such things or not) a measure that would have been unthinkable in the 1820s (and in the United States would have been unthinkable as recently as the 1920s) – had come to seem normal and natural.

Still we must not despair. Even our own time is not in every way inferior to the past. Technology has greatly advanced (although it has not advanced as much as many people hoped it would) and even in political economy not all developments have been bad. Today (for example) married women have far greater property rights than they had in the past – and also the state is far less interested in what goes on people’s bedrooms than it once was. In our horror of rising taxes, government spending and regulations (including the absurd ‘anti-discrimination’ regulations) we must not fall into the trap of thinking that all things are worse than they once were.

Paul Marks

3 comments to British Liberty

  • Incidentally, James Thomson, who wrote the words to ‘Rule Britannia’ also wrote a long poem called “Liberty” in the 1730s. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more about it since it is notoriously unreadable (Dr Johnson commented in his “Life of Thomson”: ‘ “Liberty”, when it first appeared, I tried to read, and soon desisted. I have never tried again, and therefore will not hazard either praise or censure’). The plot apparently concerns the westward progress of liberty from Greece to Rome to Britain.

  • Hm. So British liberty begins to decline as Britain gets increasingly serious about Empire in the latter two thirds of the 19th century. I wonder if there’s a connection…

  • Julian Morrison

    Typical saxon taxes = everything valuable they can carry, and all the pretty women (then burn the remainder).