Dan Jones

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I normally make it my policy when writing book reviews never to read anyone else’s.

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What Price Liberty? How Freedom was Won and is Being Lost

Ben Wilson

Faber, pp. 461, £

I normally make it my policy when writing book reviews never to read anyone else’s.

I normally make it my policy when writing book reviews never to read anyone else’s. It clogs up your mind with someone else’s prejudices and wrong opinions,where- as in fact you are being paid to bang on about your own.

This week I broke my rule and read the Guardian review of Ben Wilson’s new book. It was by some sort of lawyer chap and it was very serious. It made me remember why I gave up the Guardian, which is a news- paper for quinoa-eaters and Arsenal fans. But I digress. I read their review because I had heard a disturbing rumour that the reviewer had accused Wilson of touting in his book for a job as David Cameron’s next speechwriter.

It turned out that this rumour was true, which just shows how little research some people do. The Ben Wilson I remember from our overlapping days at Pembroke, Cambridge was just about the unlikeliest Conservative you can imagine. The most Tory thing I can remember him doing was on the eve of the history prelims, when he and an accomplice unrolled about a half-ton of unlaid turf and arranged it in the courtyard over which the first-year undergrads’ bedroom windows looked, to spell the words ‘carpe diem’. You could just about have read that as an exhortation to the spirit of Thatcherite entrepreneurialism. Otherwise his politics were turn-of-the-century Whig. (The 18th century.)

Anyway, you heard it here first: Ben Wilson is not to be the Cameroon Jon Favreau. (I did telephone him to check.) But politicians of all hues would be well advised to read his book. In it, Wilson charts the historical development of the idea of liberty in Britain: what it is, how it evolved, and what recent governments have done to unpick its legal basis.

The book picks up the story at the time of the English Civil Wars. Magna Carta gets a brief look-in, but otherwise the medieval period is scuttled past. I suppose this makes sense, since to push the boundaries back to King John’s reign would have turned a manageable 400-page work into an unwieldy 600 pages. Thereafter it is an erudite and absorbing narrative right up to the present day.

The historical stuff is extremely well handled. This is Wilson’s third book and his style is now confident, controlled and elegant. He has breezed through the transition from writing historical portraits of individuals and relatively short periods of history in his first two books (The Laughter of Triumph, and Decency and Disorder) to broad-strokes landscape work in this one. Not only does he have a thorough handle on the politics and political literature of some 350 years, he also has the rare knack of making it all seem frightfully relevant to today.

The most modern stuff is accomplished journalism. Wilson concentrates mainly on the threats posed to freedom of speech in a multicultural society terrified of being seen as intolerant, and the appalling erosions of liberty committed by the Blair and Brown governments attempting to control terrorism after 9/11 and 7/7 — particularly in chucking habeas corpus out of the window when Brown extended the detention period for terrorist suspects to 42 days last year.

One comes away from this book feeling cheered by Wilson’s basic faith in British love of liberty. I wish I could share it. I fear that the Facebook generation equates constant CCTV surveillance with the opportunity to be on telly, would care more about having good cheekbones in the photo on their ID card than wonder what the implications of having one might be, and thinks habeas corpus is a Harry Potter character.

Or is that unduly pessimistic? The expenses scandal seems to have shaken the British electorate from their constitutional slumber — might we be on the cusp of a new Glorious Revolution? We shall see. It’s sad though, mused Wilson, when I rang him, that it took fingers in the till, rather than a government’s blatant disregard for the principles of British liberty, finally to stir the beast.

(Oh, and an endnote: before its official publication on 4 June, Wilson’s book was sold in electronic form, to be read as a pdf file or on the Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader. Readers could pay whatever they liked for it. It was more a natty PR stunt than a money-spinner, according to the Faber press office, but this way lies the future of publishing. That’s what I read in the Guardian, anyway.)