When I was at College

Jonathan Ring
Lawrence Norfolk

When I was at college, sometime in the previous century, I attended a series of lectures on 'Common Moral Themes'. The lectures were delivered first thing on Monday morning in a large hall to undergraduates from all departments and ranged from the abstruse ('Can a reasoned defence of religion ever not be paradoxical?') to the obvious ('Murder: right or wrong?'). The style was dry but the phrase that stuck in my mind was uncharacteristically colloquial. 'Your freedom to swing your arms,' the lecturer told the huddled mass one Monday morning, 'ends at the next guy's nose.'

          If he was trying to illustrate the relationship between 'freedom-from' (getting a bloody nose) and 'freedom-to' (swinging your arms), he succeeded. Those two freedoms need each other. My freedom from, for instance, being blown up on a bus in central London needs to be gauged against my freedom to, for instance, google holiday destinations in Afghanistan without being placed under surveillance by the security services. Or locked up without trial. Or tortured.

          It is abundantly clear that, in the UK at present, our government is according one of these freedoms vastly more weight than the other. Our rights to privacy, to protest, to free movement and association are being exacted from us as the price of our supposed security. Freedom-from is being used as a pretext to erode freedom-to.

          Liberty is the balance of these two freedoms. Governments typically pay lip-service to liberty while loading only one side of the scale. But we need both. That balance must be defended: on the page, on the streets, even in the lecture hall. Half a freedom is no liberty at all.


Lawrence Norfolk is the author of four historical novels which have been translated into twenty-four languages. His latest novel is ‘John Saturnall's Feast’.

While government watches you, who watches the government?