Bill Carmichael: Freedoms we must defend

THIS Christmas, I did something that 480 years ago would have got me burned at the stake – I read a book.

Not any old book, you understand, but William Tyndale's 1526 translation from the Greek of the New Testament of the Bible. The impact of that translation on a population that knew little of the Gospels is hard to overstate.

It helped start a revolution both religious and secular that altered forever our attitude towards authority, changed the way we understood what it is to be human and laid the foundations of our modern society.

Unlike the 1611 King James Bible, whose 400th anniversary we celebrate next year, Tyndale's work was not "authorised" by anyone, but produced in defiance of kings and bishops. His determination to place the words of the Scripture in the hands of every ploughboy in England was to cost him his life.

He was burned at the stake in 1536 and many others who were found in possession of his translation met the same fate. And as I sat by my fireside with the book on my lap, I couldn't help reflecting on how fortunate we are to enjoy freedoms fought for by courageous people down the intervening centuries.

I could have decided to read Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto or the Thoughts of Chairman Mao – although their prose style and insight into human nature are not a patch on Tyndale's – without fearing a knock on the door and being dragged off to prison.

These liberties we often take for granted. Recently, for example, during the student tuition fee protests we witnessed posh anarchists desecrating the Cenotaph in defence of daddy's trust fund.

If years of full-time education had managed to drive even the tiniest understanding of our history through their thick skulls, they would have realised how offensive their actions were.

They may also have appreciated that our freedoms are hard won and fragile – and not shared by many oppressed people around the globe.

Reading the "wrong" type of book or making a protest will get you locked up – and worse – in Iran, China, Syria and North Korea.

In Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, the Gaza Strip and many other places across the world, Christians are attacked and persecuted with a pitiless barbarity.

We are indeed lucky, but our political and religious freedoms didn't just happen by themselves – they were fought for and need defending by each new generation.

As we pass into 2011, which is bound to be a difficult and testing year, let's not forget that.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson: "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

Old, old problem

To listen to many MPs, you would think the gross abuses of the expenses system at Westminster were a recent phenomenon.

In recent years a few bad apples may have filled their pockets with taxpayers' cash, so the story goes, but the rest of the false claims were mere "misunderstandings".

Nonsense, of course. Those familiar with Parliament knew full well that the rampant looting of the public purse by some of our elected representatives was longstanding and widespread.

Now we have the proof. Documents released by the National Archives show that the Thatcher government was warned 30 years ago that there was a "grave risk" of a scandal over MPs' expenses. A Cabinet meeting in 1980 was told that abuse of the system was so serious some MPs could face prosecution. Nothing was done.

There have been many good MPs over the years. But their shameful silence is the most disappointing aspect of the whole sordid scandal.