Bernard Ingham: A conundrum in the fight for freedom

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THE French poet, Charles Peguy, once made a profound statement: “Tyranny is always better organised than freedom.” He certainly found it lethally organised. He was shot dead defending freedom on the Western Front in 1914.

His view, though, does not explain why, for example, Hitler and Stalin did not prevail. Let’s hope tyrants will always eventually be seen off by man’s lust for life, but don’t count on it.

Freedom is going through a difficult patch these days. Putin and his henchmen want to end it in the Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. The Islamic world is beset by medieval zealots who wish to imprison millions in their interpretation of the Koran.

Hong Kongers are discovering China’s limits to freedom in denying them a free choice of governors. Much of Africa has little experience of either freedom or effective organisation, but Peguy’s dictum generally holds there. Its tyrannies are better organised than the millions who wish to be free.

In the West the problem is entirely different. Freedom seems to be getting in the way of preserving it.

This brings me to the concept of freedom. Absolute freedom does not exist on this planet. Even the undiscovered tribes of the Amazon, untainted by contact with “civilised” man, are conditioned by their environment, customs and sense of preservation.

In the West, our freedom is circumscribed by law, whether national or international, as well as common prudence, often fashion and, most sinisterly, by political correctness. Those of us of a certain age, however liberal in outlook, have continually to mind our “ps and qs” lest we are called all the names under the sun, notably “racist”.

Yet if we are not as free as we once were, we are among the freest people on this Earth. Let’s keep it that way.

This brings us slap up against the problem of properly protecting ourselves from the consequences of the very freedom that generates peril. As we have seen recently, it is far from clear how tough we can get with home grown jihadists. Just how much can we control their life back in the UK? Can we legitimately withdraw their passports when they try to return and render them stateless? Could we assume in law, as Boris Johnson argues, that anybody who goes to Syria and Iraq without telling the authorities is a terrorist without specific evidence?

Nor can we end the problem of our security by just bashing away at the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. We may be able to knock seven bells out of them in Syria because President Assad is listed as a war criminal. But we cannot rush into Iraq without an invitation from an acceptable Iraqi government, even though the Kurds in the North might agree.

And what good would it do if, by eliminating thousands, we radicalised untold numbers of young Muslims, not to mention others flirting with Islam?

Similarly, in the Ukraine. Do we want to start a shooting war with Russia when there is still a chance – as evidenced by Putin’s careful, though irresponsible, manoeuvrings – of containing him diplomatically? We have, as yet, no collective Nato responsibility for the Ukraine, though the annexation of the Crimea is a clear breach of international law. But who said we – or the West – should uphold it? Not, so far, the UN – which is where leadership should lie.

And so it goes on. Freedom is a devilishly difficult thing to maintain against tyrants when its maintenance is conditioned by law and human rights and when your methods are compromised by leaking such as by that self-styled saviour of freedom, Edward Snowden.

It sometimes seems that the barbarians are better protected than honest citizens in the Land of the Free.

So, spare a thought for the politicians wrestling with the problem. Their popularly perceived weakness in observing the law might actually have some strength in it. David Cameron is on a hiding to nothing with Philip Hammond and Theresa May over their handling of the Middle East and the Ukraine.

I suspect they will never quite match up to the demands of the all-action absolutist defenders of freedom. Yet we know how they can best preserve it – by steadily strangling the Islamic State as part of a global operation and keeping Putin more or less in his Kremlin box.

Monsieur Peguy needs updating. Free men must always be better organised – and smarter – than tyrants.