In the name of freedom, we have been exposed, to a greater extent than any other European nation, to a deadly pandemic. In his speech in Greenwich on 3 February, Boris Johnson lambasted governments that had “panicked” about the coronavirus, inflicting “unnecessary economic damage”. His government, by contrast, would champion our right to “buy and sell freely among each other”.
But as always, the professed love of freedom among those who represent the interests of the rich in politics is highly selective. If the government valued freedom as much as it says it does, it would do everything in its power to maximise the liberties we can safely exercise, while protecting us from harm.
In other words, it would take up the call to open London’s golf courses to public access. As the author and land campaigner Guy Shrubsole has discovered, there are 131 golf courses in Greater London, covering 11,000 acres. But they are open only to those who pay fees to play and to members, while millions of people swelter in tiny flats or edge round each other in minuscule parks, desperate for a sense of space and freedom. The government would also take up the call for private schools to open their playing fields and extensive grounds. And it would open London’s locked green squares, and designate other tracts of private land in and around our cities for public access.
But a core purpose of conservatism is to defend private property from public use, and to extend private ownership and exclusive rights into realms previously enjoyed by all. And no form of wealth is more fiercely contested than land.
Throughout the history of these isles, exclusion from the land has been a major source of social conflict. It remains so today. Last month, Johnson extolled the “ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom”. But before the pandemic began, his government proposed to criminalise trespass in England and Wales. This is the opposite policy to Scotland’s, where there is now a comprehensive right to roam.
In November last year, Johnson announced an expansion of police powers to stop and search people without grounds for suspicion. These powers have long been perceived by people of colour as a form of collective harassment in public places, impinging on their free movement. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are on average eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people.
Some young black men have the sense of living in a permanent state of partial lockdown. The government’s own assessment shows that an expansion of stop and search powers has “at best, only minimal effects on violent crime”. In fact, as a primary cause of both the 1981 and 2011 riots, the policy is likely to exacerbate it.