E. Belfort Bax

British Freedom

(19 May 1900)

British Freedom, Justice, 19th May 1900, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is an impression abroad among Englishmen and foreigners alike that England represents fairplay in the expression of opinion, and personal freedom, above all other nations. This is a belief which has become traditional, and like many other traditional beliefs it is not, often thought worth while to examine its basis. But if we enquire into the grounds on which it stands we shall find that British liberty in the sunlight of criticism does not look quite as green and fresh as in the artificial halo of popular imagination.

Up to date, it is true, it has, in general, better suited the policy of the governing classes of this country to allow free speech and writing than to excite adverse sympathy and raise a cry against themselves by suppressing them. When they have thought to score an advantage by the latter policy, however, they have not been slow to adopt it. The difference between their tactics and those of their continental brethren has even in this case, however, shown their superior astuteness. While the continental bourgeois howls for police measures the moment he believes his interests to be threatened by opposition, the British possessing-class man takes care to cajole the working class up to the top of their bent by trick catchwords, so as to steel them against any subversive doctrines that may be in the air, and further, while, as a rule, scorning to employ police and arrest to crush hostile criticism, by no means disdains to call to his aid hired bullies for this purpose.

How readily an opposition can be purchased we all know. I well remember at Croydon, the Tories (or was it the Liberals) years ago organising such an opposition to some of our open-air Socialist meetings which we accidentally learnt cost the organisers a shilling a head. Thereupon, our people approached the same chucker-out fraternity with the offer of eighteen-pence a head. They closed at once with the suggestion and the next Sunday afternoon saw the Tory Opposition of the Sunday before converted into an aggressive Socialist phalanx. The local Primrose League (or whatever other body it was), determined not to be outdone, came back to the charge with the offer of two shillings a head, and the following Sunday the tables were once more turned, the aggressive Socialist phalanx of the previous Sunday starting God save the Queen, and making a rush for our chair and speakers. We might have sprung to half-a-crown but did not think it worth while, knowing the slenderness of our own resources as compared with those of the champions of Queen and country. So the “People of England” and their “public opinion,” as voiced by the two-shilling gentlemen, remained masters of the situation.

Now, this illustrates the superior astuteness of the British over the continental reactionary. The latter would have suppressed the meetings by policemen in uniform. The former suppressed them by the force of Public Opinion en civil at a cost of two shillings per head of Public Opinion. In the same way recently it was not the police that interfered with our anti-war addresses; on the contrary, they sometimes did their best to protect our speakers. No, it was British Public Opinion, which this time, owing to the absence of competitive offers on our part, probably cost less than two shillings a-head.

But where these smarter methods – which the governing classes of this country, owing to experience of their superior efficiency, prefer wherever possible to apply – will not work, British authorities are as ready as those of other countries to adopt the good old-fashioned ones of police suppression. We have had instances enough of this in Ireland, the latest being the seizure of a whole edition of the newspaper United Ireland, quite à la Russe, for adverse criticism of the Queen’s visit. That anyone should be so guileless as to suppose that if the economically and politically dominant classes of England imagined their interests or supremacy even remotely threatened by free speech and a free press that free speech and a free press would not at once go by the board, is truly astonishing. Yet one must fain suppose there are such, or we should hardly bear from so many sides the talk of Britain being the freest country in the world. Why, as regards freedom of the press, who can have the slightest doubt that if the British press were as outspoken as the French there would be at least double the press prosecutions there are in France? Who can imagine the criticisms of the Intransigeant on prominent persons being possible in London without the editor or writer finding himself in Holloway in the space of time which Dickens calls “something less than a pig’s whisper.” The fact is the British, like the German, is a demure press which seldom transgresses Parliamentary usages as regards the expression of its opinions. Hence the excuse for suppression is largely absent; and no set of persons, no Government, suppresses for the sake of suppressing without some colourable pretext.

It is the vision of British freedom which leads so many persons to look benevolently on British aggression on weaker peoples. And this sentiment is by no means confined to Englishmen. On the contrary, it was, till quite recently, largely to be met with on the Continent. The fact remains that political liberty in England is not appreciably greater than in many continental countries, while other forms of liberty (e.g., Sunday amusements, divorce laws, &c) are positively more restricted here than there. The excuse for British domination in so far as it rests on the ground of British freedom, rests on what is little better than a superstition. The apocalyptic Big Englander, who sees in prophetic vision a great multitude whom no man can number, who have washed their feet in the blood of the Boer, clad in khaki suits with union jacks in their hands, singing Rule, Britannia, and God Save the Queen, will not be influenced by these considerations. But those whose views as to British expansion, or even the maintenance of Britain’s position among the nations, are really based on belief in Britain’s “civilising mission” as the apostolic emissary of popular freedom, might surely do well to reconsider their position.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 11.6.2004