Friday, 23 March 2007

Taking control: little by little, freedom disappears

Many years ago, an observational experiment was carried out on leadership amongst children. Children who were known to be ‘leaders’ in other contexts were placed in groups of children they didn’t know and left to see how they would get on.

What the observers discovered was that these children once again became leaders. But since they had no initial status in the new group, they did it in a subtle way.

Instead of trying to assume control, they began by telling the other children to do things they were already doing. Without realizing it, the other children thus became used to ‘doing what they were told’ by their new leader. In due time, the leader then began to issue new instructions of their own, and the takeover was complete.

I have often reflected on this in the light of modern political developments.

I think, for example, of the European Union, whose influence on our lives began with peripheral ‘silly’ laws. In 1973, for example, Directive 361 concerned the certification and marking of wire ropes, chains and hooks. In 1974, Directive 409 harmonised the laws on honey, and so on.

For those directly involved, this was no doubt tedious. But how could it be a threat to the rest of us?

Well, now we know. ‘European’ legislation now trumps national legislation, and the European Convention on Human Rights trumps the freedoms our own society evolved and fought for over centuries.

If you don’t believe me, look at how the Convention’s provisions on religious freedom featured in the recently-published Legislative Scrutiny on the Government’s Sexual Orientation Regulations. In considering the case for religious exemptions, paragraph 34 states,

The right to manifest one’s religion or belief in practice is protected by the second limb of Article 9(1) [of the European Convention on Human Rights].

So far, so good. But then it adds, quite correctly,

This is a qualified right capable of limitation under Article 9(2), including for the protection of the rights of others.

What, then, does this Article say? Part 1 grants freedom of religion to individuals:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

And Part 2 takes it away:

2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

At one level this might seem quite reasonable. One should not be allowed, for example, to claim the ‘freedom’ to kill apostates from one’s own religion, even if this is a matter of faith.

The problem, however, is with the issue of who defines ‘the rights and freedoms of others’. Are these to be the common and basic rights to life, freedom, personal security and legal justice, outlined in the earlier articles? Or are there to be new and more complex ‘rights’, which overturn earlier concepts of what is right and good, and which are defined for us by contemporary legislators?

In short, is freedom of religion something a government ought to endeavour to protect, or something which a government merely allows, so long as it doesn’t conflict with its own agenda?

Once again, now we know.

In her book, The Fragmenting Family, Brenda Almond presents a devastating critique of how social policies in the last fifty years threaten social chaos through the sometimes-deliberate dismantling of the previous understanding of families and their role in society. Structures which once naturally embodied and expressed the right to have a family, expressed in Article 12 of the European Convention, have been undermined and are now being redefined to embrace styles of living which the original drafters of the Convention would not, and could not, have envisaged.

At the same time, Almond is concerned that the State increasingly seeks to take over the rights and roles previously ascribed in all societies to parents of biological children. All-day nursery care for the children of working mothers, for example, is not only measurably bad for the children, but represents the abrogation of motherhood itself. (Fatherhood, meanwhile, disappeared with the advent of single-parent — for which read single-mother — families established by state subsidies.)

In the light of all this, caution about ‘Civil Partnerships’ and opposition to regulations about ‘sexual orientation’ appears not as some aberration of the ‘religious right’ but as a vital response to potential disaster.

Freedom of conscience, and freedom to practice one’s religion, stand not as obstacles in the way of progress but as necessary bulwarks against a new kind of totalitarianism, which began with the little things but now seeks control of the whole of life.

I am reminded how, in Nazi Germany, the persecution of the Jews originally seemed ‘acceptable’ even to some Jews. A little restriction here and a little inconvenience there was only an extension of what they were used to. Surely a compromise would eventually be reached?

Similarly, a recent survey has shown that Christians in the UK feel themselves to be discriminated against, at work, in the media and even in local government. But according to one episcopal spokesman this is only because they are more aware of things through the media, not because there is a real problem.

One day, perhaps soon, we will know who was right.

Revd John P Richardson

23 March 2007

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