With Corbyn and McDonnell running the Labour Party, it’s often said to be inconceivable that people with such views could win power. But we often forget that hard left politics, state control of the economy and other such ideas were strong and even dominant forces in Britain within living memory.
The 40th anniversary of the founding of The Freedom Association, which was celebrated at a dinner last night, serves as a reminder of that history. Gerald Howarth, one of several Conservative MPs in attendance, took the opportunity to look back at the Britain of 1975. That year, six million days were lost to strike action – compared to 144,000 lost from January to September 2015. The closed shop still existed, and workers routinely faced the sack if they refused to join a trade union. The Soviet Union was still in its pomp and threatening the security of the free world. The IRA’s campaign of bombings and assassinations had reached the mainland, and a staggering 40 bombs had been set off in London during 1974 and 1975.
It was against this background – and the accompanying political culture of defeatism and managed decline – that four men, the twins Ross and Norris McWhirter, Viscount De L’Isle and John Gouriet, founded what was to become The Freedom Association (its initial name, the National Association For Freedom, had a somewhat unfortunate acronym). Each felt that it was better to battle for freedom, rather than just to lament its demise – a position that established the organisation essentially as a campaigning vanguard of Thatcherism, though they could not know it at the time. The vehicle to do so was a rare beast – a multi-issue pressure group.
On 27th November 1975, just a few days before the organisation’s planned launch, Ross McWhirter was murdered at his family home by IRA terrorists, having offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the cell responsible for the series of attacks in London (the gang was arrested a fortnight later after the Balcombe Street siege).
Over the years that followed, TFA played a crucial role in expanding freedom in Britain. The organisation backed Roger Webster, a British rail employee who refused to join a trade union, in his successful case to end the closed shop. It organised ‘Operation Pony Express’, which smuggled parcels out of the Grunwick photo-processing plant and thus enabled the company to survive siege by picketers (picketers organised, incidentally, by now-Labour MP Jack Dromey) – winning a dispute described by Sir Keith Joseph as “a make-or-break point for British democracy, the freedoms of ordinary men and women”.
In doing so, TFA laid the ground work for the restoration of economic and personal liberty – and as a result of economic growth and national confidence – in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. But campaigning can be counter-cyclical; the further their aims advanced nationally, the less need their seemed to be for the organisation. As a result, TFA lost the prominence and membership numbers it had enjoyed when freedom was at its lowest ebb.
But while it had shrunk, it had not died. The remarkable thing to consider as TFA celebrates its 40th anniversary is how remarkable that life span is for a political campaigning organisation. Very few groups of a similar vintage still exist. In part, the secret of its longevity lies in the breadth of the issues involved. The seven principles of a free society are, sadly, never completely secure – and while some of the threats faced today are very different from those envisaged in 1975 (online snooping, the growth of bully state policies under the banner of ‘public health’, and the rise of the European Union, for example), the need for an organisation to defend those principles has never gone away.
In recent years, TFA has enjoyed something of a comeback. When it offered me my first job in politics in 2005 (I now sit on its management committee), it was taking the first steps of a transition into new models of campaigning and new subjects. In the decade since, it has formed part of the successful alliance against Identity Cards, led the way in arguing that new technologies make the BBC licence fee redundant, defended free expression against growing demands for censorship, helped to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and, of course, set up the Better Off Out campaign to press for Britain to leave the EU. TFA has expanded on university campuses, and now publishes more research and delivers more campaigning material than at any time since its heyday in the 1970s. As Tim Montgomerie established ConservativeHome’s basic principle of the inclusive centre right family, he invited TFA to contribute to the site, which it still does a decade later.
What struck me last night, as founder members mingled with young libertarians, was both how much has changed and how little. In this country we now live a far more prosperous, far happier and far more free life than Britons enjoyed in 1975 – our economy, our society and our technology is vastly improved on almost every count. The conditions which made much of that progress possible are down to the work of The Freedom Association and campaigners like them, and that huge achievement should be celebrated.
But the threats to prosperity, happiness and freedom still exist. The Shadow Chancellor is a man who once praised the role of “the bullet and the bomb” as tools to unite Ireland – the same tactics that cut down Ross McWhirter 40 years and six days ago. The chief adviser to the Leader of the Opposition is a man who writes rose-tinted fantasies about the supposed boons of Communism. On university campuses, the poisonous ideology of censorship is creeping its way back under the guise of ‘safe space’ policies and boycotts for speakers whose ideas are deemed dangerous. In Syria and Iraq, murderous fascists commit genocide, rape and torture, and plot to bring that nightmare to our streets and homes.
So while we celebrated four decades of the fight for freedom, and toasted its heroes and its victories, I confess my mind was on the next 40 years. The Freedom Association will be as essential in the struggles to come as it was in the struggles that have passed. Should you wish to join it, you can do so here.