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The Following essay is excerpted from a lecture given on December 1, 2016, at the Crisis of Liberty in the West Conference.

It is characteristic of our times to regard freedom as an attribute of individuals. To campaign for my freedom, to choose my way of life, my rights to proceed in this or that way through life without interference and to concede the social dimension of freedom only by default—by recognizing that whatever freedoms I claim I must also grant. In other words, to admit that freedom can be limited only for the sake of freedom and that all our claims to it are equal.

Traditionally, it was not so. Freedom was regarded primarily as an attribute of the body politic as a whole. We Britons prided ourselves on living in a “free country” and regarded our freedom as a quality of the institutions under which we lived and the space in which those institutions operated. This freedom was something we encountered—like a refreshing breeze—when we returned from abroad and crossed the border, sensing that we were now in safe hands. Freedom was seen as an inheritance, a feature of a way of life, not to be understood in terms of the multiplicity of options, still less in a list of civil rights. It was a shared way of being, founded in mutual trust and the product of institutions that were created not in a day but passed on from generation to generation as things to be trusted. The free citizen was marked by a proud independence, a respect for others and a sense of responsibility for their common way of life and the choices it protected. Fair-mindedness, acceptance of eccentricity and a reluctance to take offense, combined with an aversion for abuse and slander, were attributes of free citizens and belonged to them by virtue of public institutions in which they placed their trust and which they were tutored to defend both in thought and deed against those who would destroy them. Such citizens fought for the freedom of their country and for their own freedom as part of it.

It seems to me that the free individual and the free country belong together and that the one will not survive without the other. However, the emphasis on rights, the neglect of the duties that bind individuals to each other and to the political order, and the growing grievance industry fostered by the welfare state are weakening the obedience on which freedom ultimately depends.

The pursuit of individual freedom, detached from inherited obedience, leads to a new denial of freedom.

The pursuit of individual freedom, detached from inherited obedience, leads to a new denial of freedom.

Because we share a national identity that subsumes institutions, customs and laws, we can share—without any other cost than that of belonging—that our individual freedoms are of our national identity. Our law is adjusted and amended in the interests of reconciliation and peace within the historical community over which it stands in judgment. This law-governed society is made possible because we know who we are and define our identity by our country, the place where our man-made law prevails, the sovereign territory in which we have built the free form of life we share. something more than paper documents. It is something that exists only so long as we protect it, and the demand that we do so underlay the surprising result of the recent referendum—surprising because the result expressed the feelings of people who have been most affected by the culture of repudiation and the political correctness of our governing elite.

We should recognize that freedom is nothing if we cannot protect it from predators. Protection comes about only in conditions of trust, in which institutions command obedience and define the public standards of conduct and responsibility which we are to honor and which can be called on against the threats.

We are heirs to a society governed by law, in which the people themselves make and adjust the law through their representatives. Ours is a secular law that we can change as circumstances change and that we obey because it expresses the commitment we all share to the first person plural of our national identity. Our law is adjusted and amended in the interests of reconciliation and peace within the historical community over which it stands in judgment.

This law-governed society is made possible because we know who we are and define our identity by our country, the place where our man-made law prevails, the sovereign territory in which we have built the free form of life we share.

This sovereign territory is our home, and it is in terms of it that our public duties are defined. We may have religious and family duties too, but they are private duties, not incumbent on the citizenry as a whole. Our public duties are defined by the secular law and by the customs and institutions that have grown alongside it.

It is in that way that we should define the “first person plural,” the “we” of the modern nation state. And in my view, this “we” is much preferred to the “we” of the ruling oligarchy or the “we” of religion. Yet those rival “we” identifications are at this very moment eyeing our assets with a view to imposing themselves, and it is time for us to wake up to what we have—to the blessing of a national identity and a shared homeland, within whose borders we are freely governed.

It has become politically incorrect to affirm one’s loyalty in such terms. The EU insists that to think in this way is to commit the sins of racism and xenophobia. Let it be said that the regime of censorship and intimidation under which we now live is so powerful that no voter will confess to national feelings when they have been told that to do so is proof of racism or xenophobia. That is why the opinion polls were so wrong, both regarding Brexit and the American election. National loyalty has been branded as a sin.

It seems to me that the national identity that I, as an Englishman, have inherited— the identity of a nation joined in a union of like-minded nations in a single, sovereign territory—is far more robust than its detractors assume, and that it has, like the American identity, a remarkable capacity to absorb incomers and to integrate them by a process of mutual adaptation. But we can adapt to the effects of inward migration only if migration is controlled and only if we are allowed to affirm our identity in the face of it so as to renew our obedience to the institutions and customs that define us.

In other words, the global processes that challenge us now are reasons to affirm national sovereignty and not to repudiate it. For national sovereignty defines what we are.


Sir Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher who has published more than 40 books in philosophy, aesthetics and politics. He is widely translated. He is a fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches in both England and America and is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C. His home on the web is Roger-Scruton.com.