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Locke’s Rules for Liberty

Published in The Times 28 October 2004

The great philosopher of liberty, John Locke, died 300 years ago today, yet his account of liberty is as relevant now as it was then.

Locke’s Second Treatise of Government laid down four leading elements of a free society. The last was that Parliament ‘cannot transfer the power of making laws to any other hands: for it being but a delegated power from the people, they who have it cannot pass it over to others’. The current crop of politicians forgot this stricture soon after we joined the European Union. About 60% of new laws and 80% of regulations are initiated in Europe. Many are not even rubber-stamped by our Parliament. The people, said Locke, had given Parliament the power ‘only to make laws, and not to make legislators’.

Locke showed how English law was a device for protecting the liberty of the individual. In Continental Europe, law was a weapon in the hands of the authorities for enforcing their will. In England there was a ‘standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society’ which meant, ‘A liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another’. English law gave a clear warning when force could be used against us and otherwise left us free to improve our lives as each thought best.

When early liberals like Locke sought to put individual conscience in place of authority, and individual judgement based on personal Bible reading in place of submission to priestly authority, they expected to be making a society in which reflection and deliberation would drive out deference and prejudice. Locke’s political ideal was not majoritarian democracy, which implied enforcing fixed opinions, but deliberative democracy – listening and reflecting before deciding. Mr Blair’s Government, however, has shown little faith in parliamentary deliberation and revealed a strong desire to curtail discussion and force measures through, with the use of the Parliament Act to ban fox hunting only the most recent example.

We have strayed a long way from the ideals described by Locke, perhaps because we have no written constitution. If this giant among philosophers of liberty were alive today, he might well be calling for our own English Constitution to prevent further erosion of our ‘Life, Liberty, or Possessions’.

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