I woke up one morning in March to the sound of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring on Classic FM. They were playing that catchy folk tune “Simple Gifts”, and of course it’s impossible to hear it without remembering the words:
’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
Then of course it struck me: No! Freedom is not a gift. It’s a right. A right that may need to be striven and fought for, and defended (the price of liberty is eternal vigilance), but nonetheless a right. Of course there are those, especially in Brussels, who want you to believe that freedom is a gift. A generous offering from the European Union, enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. “Freedom is a benefit of EU Citizenship”, they proclaim, as though we in Britain had no idea of the concept before 1973. In just the same way, they expect us to thank the EU for clean beaches and clean air, as though no country outside the EU had decent environmental standards. Yet I imagine that Norway probably has air and beaches as clean as those in Sweden, although Norway is not an EU member.
When the Americans drafted their Declaration of Independence, they did not say “All Americans shall have rights determined and gifted to them by political institutions in Washington”. No. They said “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. Whether you believe in a Creator or not, the point stands. Every human being is entitled to certain inalienable rights, and these rights do not and must not depend on political institutions.
This is why I am unhappy about Cameron’s plan for a British “Bill of Rights”. Our rights are already codified in our hybrid Constitution, and in our Common Law, and that is enough. Write them down in a Bill of Rights, and before you know it, judicial activism and interpretational creep will create perverse incentives and unintended consequences — as we have seen with the ECJ’s over-interpretation of the European Convention.
Of course there’s that second line “The gift to come down where we ought to be”. I don’t know about “ought”, but I don’t recall in my youth having ambitions to be where I am now. I wanted a Jaguar, and eventually I got one, so that’s one box ticked. But I had no intention of spending years in Asia, or of ending up living in a small village in Leicestershire, or of having a second career in politics, or working long after the statutory retirement age. So I guess I’d say “It’s a gift to come down where you never intended to be, but to find you’re very happy when you get there”.