Runnymede in Surrey isn't far from where I live but there's little to see, a patch of meadowland just off the M25 dotted with a few modest monuments. The vast majority of the site is simple English countryside – beautiful and scientifically of interest, but that's not untypical of this corner of the country – and without explanation, as with many a historic site, quite easily passable, forgettable, indifferent to any other field or meadow almost anywhere. It could be the site of a battle or meeting, discovery or treaty, or maybe nothing at all; it could be a Flanders' Field, or Bosworth Field, or just any old field.
But then that's the beauty of history: it's there, but only because we were ourselves told it was there, the narrative story passed down generation to generation, with the implicit expectation – duty even – that we repeat that process, handing on that knowledge and legacy. That to me is the difference between history and archeology, that one is a living story passed on and the other merely randomly discovered curiosities to decipher but never fully comprehend, though I doubt that's the official distinction. If we don't pass on history it vanishes into archeology, that field becomes just a field, that past just a few remnant curios to perhaps perplex a future generation as to their meaning and story, just as we ponder Stonehenge or Mayan ruins, or maybe to become nothing at all.
As with history, so too with liberty, the two being so intrinsically bound in our nation's story. A wise man once warned the world that liberty "is never more than one generation away from extinction", that we don't "pass it to our children in the bloodstream", and that's certainly true. Yet it is with pity that it seems to have come to pass that we have failed to maintain that liberty and have witnessed a great extinction of freedom, a great dimming of the bright-white liberty that once shone from these shores as a beacon of hope to a continent so often caped in the darkness of oppression, a great abandonment and utter renouncification of all that we once believed in and stood for and intrinsically were. The England of 2012 is different of course to the England of 1912, and in near every way for the better, but near every way is not in every way; the England that prided itself on particularism, of being different to other nations of Europe in our liberties and laws, has ceased to be. Something has failed to be passed down the generations.
Over the last few months we have witnessed a growing stream of incidents where thoughtless, unpleasant and downright vile statements have been met with force of law, and in each case it is usually entirely impossible to defend what was stated. We cannot defend what Liam Stacey wrote about Fabrice Muamba, or what Matthew Wood wrote about the missing girl April Jones – in that case because we do not even know – nor what Barry Thew wrote angrily on his shirt – "One less pig; perfect justice; killacop4fun.com haha" – though in that case we can cite a history of mental illness and the fact his son is said to have died in police custody as mitigating factors, but what surely cannot be defended is that each of these individuals were arrested, charged and imprisoned. Largely under the auspices of the Public Order Act, but also the Electronic Communications Act 2003, greater and greater numbers are finding that their words are deemed criminal; causing offence – a subjective matter – considered so morally reprehensible that it is recognized alongside actual, physical, and thus objectively defined crimes.
And through this acceptance of subjective criminality, that the judge of the day can interpret as he or she desires what is that day offensive – though may not have been yesterday – an open door has been created; the terms "thin end of the wedge" and "slippery slope" are rather cliched, but no other terms adequately define what has become reality, that anyone and anything could be deemed offensive, that offensive now equals criminal, and that some individual – having upset the hysteric and reactionary mob, or just a single person – can be destined for prison, criminal record logged, for uttering a word or scrawling a sentence.
Anything and everything can be found criminal under these Acts, the wording of which is chilling. We are advised wisely never to sign a contract without reading the small print, and understanding every clause, yet with these Acts a blank contract has been signed for judges present and future to dictate ever changing terms, perhaps – as was implied by the Stacey Case – guided by angry mob backlash. The 2003 Act states that "A person is guilty of an offence if he…sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character, or…for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he sends…a message that he knows to be false," which could apply to half the Internet, maybe more, and has no limit.
Likewise under the Public Order Act a person "is guilty of an offence if he uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby." How Parliament ever approved such a law, making it a criminal offense to be insulting, or to cause distress, or alarm, etc, is frankly beyond me. Such restriction I usually compare to a primary school, but thinking about it there was less control when I was at primary school!
And though we hear about the cases where the press – seeking the sensational tales of the underclass – concur with the disgust expressed at these verbal "criminals", and often with their arrest, by far the biggest victims are the accidental or ignorant: a student arrested for saying to a mounted policeman "Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?"; Kyle Little arrested and convicted for barking at two labradors; a 15-year-old arrested for holding up a sign reading "Scientology is not a religion. It is a dangerous cult"; the numerous Christians arrested for leaflets and street ministry deemed homophobic or distressing to different faiths. "An eye for an eye," the Biblical reasoning, was a maximum, a limitation, a restriction on the angry mob and requirement that punishments would fit the crime; when liberals say that we are no longer a Christian country this isn't what they tend to mean, but it seems to be the case, for surely the appropriate response to word is word?
Alas that doesn't seem to be the sentiment in Britain these days, not even of the Conservative Party, where in a hall decked in union flags and on your sleeve patriotism Home Secretary Theresa May announced to the Party Conference her intention to regulate and police the Internet. "We are the Conservative Party, not the Libertarian Party," Ms May announced, in that instance relating to Internet records, though after nearly three years we have seen no shift to reinstate free speech. Of course the Conservatives are not the Libertarian Party, but as conservatives the ancient liberties that were fundamental to our nation should be at the forefront of our conservation efforts, and chief among them is the right to pure, unrestricted, unbound free speech.
"In these Meads on 15th June 1215 King John at the instance of Deputies from the whole community of the Realm granted the Great Charter, the earliest of constitutional documents, whereunder ancient and cherished customs were confirmed…and every individual perpetually secured in the free enjoyment of his life and property," reads the inscription on the Lutyens lodge at Runnymede; "ancient and cherished customs confirmed" being key, for this it isn't about libertarian values, it's about English values. The words to Rule Britannia proclaim: "When Britain first at Heaven's command, Arose from out the azure main, This was the charter of the land… Rule, Britannia! rule the waves, Britons never will be slaves… The nations not so blest as thee, Must in their turns to tyrants fall; While thou shalt flourish great and free… The Muses, still with freedom found, Shall to thy happy coast repair"; A.C. Benson and Elgar declared "Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained, Have ruled thee well and long, Freedom gained, by Truth maintained… Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free".
Which is why, for me at least, the Prime Minister's recent announcement of a £50 million fund to commemorate the start of the First World War – described as "a truly national commemoration worthy of this historic centenary" – felt slightly shallow. Though in part I attribute this feeling to a slight personal disdain in linking a financial budget to commemoration – is there not a slight superficiality and materialistic taste to spending money to commemorate, as if we only care if we spend and the more we spend the more we care? – it also felt empty. The millions that sacrificed their lives for our nation, indeed our world, did not do so merely for a piece of rock off the coast of Europe, nor for a flag, but rather for what that rock – our island home – and what that flag stood for. As Churchill noted, "Civilization will not last, freedom will not survive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them." Those that died, in every war, were – and indeed still are, as fighting continues in Afghanistan – the heroes of those masses, united in defending that which we hold dear, but haven't we let down our side of the bargain, our part in that defence, in a way that no commemoration can compensate, whatever the budget?
The Epitaph to the Unknown Soldier posits a fact and asks a rhetorical question: "To save your world you asked this man to die; Would this man, could he see you now, ask why?" When we imprison people for their words, when we cast aside the "ancient and cherished customs confirmed" at Runnymede near eight centuries passed, when we cease being "Mother of the Free", I start to wonder whether that man – representative as he is of millions – would ask that question, and with the centenary of the First World War approaching there has never been a better time to do something about it. Just as the best revenge is living well, the best commemoration is staying true – true to your beliefs, values, principles and being – and that, for England, means liberty.
Until then the England we knew and loved, freedom of speech, Requiescat in pace.