What would Lenin have made of the Naked Rambler? When freedom becomes merely taking a liberty

An individual's right to strip or swear can become a licence for bare-faced cheek. Maybe comrade Lenin was right
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Hearing the latest developments in the story of Stephen Gough, the so-called Naked Rambler, whose case was thrown out by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last week, I realised that the best route into this little parable of personal freedom in the modern age was to put yourself in the position of his unsuspecting audience. Let us imagine that I was walking through a forest in Scotland – the place where Mr Gough seems most often to get himself arrested – with a couple of small children in tow, and we suddenly came upon this champion of the right to self-expression wearing nothing but a pair of hiking books and a rucksack? How would I feel?

One can never predict these things in advance, but I have an idea that I would react in much the same way as I used to greet the elderly lady who, 20 years ago, liked to walk her pack of dachshunds along Putney towpath clad only in a pair of Bermuda shorts: a bleakly satirical nod, sometimes accompanied by the line invariably offered by Regan in The Sweeney whenever the villain's girlfriend's torso fell out from beneath the bed-clothes: "Put 'em away love." My objection was not so much based on the nudity as on the scent of exhibitionism. Here, it seemed to me, was someone who was simply determined to show off – in this case by removing most of her clothes on a public footpath.

Mr Gough, on the other hand, undoubtedly sees himself in more exalted terms. The statement issued through his lawyer in the wake of the ECHR judgment had quite a bit to say about the "slavish conformity" of the world we inhabit and the advantages of "eccentricity" and "difference", and ended with a claim that "without the freedom to express our individuality and uniqueness in our own way, something inside us dies, and the world around us becomes less vital". The Strasbourg court, alas, noting that his view on nudity was shared by "very few people", decided that he was merely a public nuisance and confirmed the validity of the two-and-a-half-year sentence he is currently serving for breaching an indefinite Asbo.

There is, of course, not the slightest chance that the case will stop here, for Mr Gough, in the manner of public nuisances, is clearly itching for another opportunity to strut his stuff and will almost certainly mark the day of his release by tearing off his clothes in the prison vestibule. And here, you see, I am making the no doubt dreadful and illiberal mistake of not taking him seriously, of assuming that all this naked up-hill and down-daling, this concentration of fine legal minds and concatenation of Strasbourg judges, is merely funny rather than exemplifying some profound truth about human conduct. For it is a fact that many of the modern test cases about "freedom" involve not some potent symbol around which good liberals can happily congregate but something which most of us want to either laugh at or silently despise.

Which is another way of saying that though most of us believe in freedom of expression, we would probably want to see every enterprise to which Richard Desmond had ever put his hand locked in a very large box and thrown in the Thames. Meanwhile, there is that word "freedom", which of all the abstract nouns that have come into such serious disrepute in the past half-century or so – another, naturally, is "liberal" – is the one which seems to have drifted the furthest from its original mooring.

"I don't want more freedom," my father sometimes used to say in the 1970s, when a politician uttered some bromide about "setting the people free". "I want less of it." I was always slightly shocked by this declaration, for it seemed uncomfortably close to Lenin's maxim that freedom was so precious that it needed to be rationed. What I think my father meant was that, having grown up in the rather constrained environment of the 1920s and 1930s, he had formed the traditional conservative's view that the world worked better according to these bygone standards, and that the "freedoms" of the 1960s and '70s were a false prospectus as their ultimate effect would be to bring about a kind of subservience that was worse than the conformity of his own childhood.

In the field of personal or emotional freedom, on which the Age of Aquarius was so keen, here defined as the freedom to contract relationships on your own terms, and then cancel them on your own terms as well, you have an idea that he was on to something. Iris Murdoch's novels of the 1960s and 1970s are not much read these days, but the general effect of their rounds of partner-swapping and anguished conversations about how one really feels about half a dozen other people is to demonstrate quite how much baggage comes with sexual liberty, and that the consequence is to borrow the title of AS Byatt's study of Murdoch's early work is only "degrees of freedom", where limitation is quite as strenuously at work as licence.

As for economic freedom, so regularly espoused by the neo-liberal right, well, it takes only a glance at the business pages to suggest that in the majority of cases this may be defined as the freedom to exploit others. Which returns us to that freedom of personal expression in which Mr Gough so passionately believes, that Rabelaisian right to fais ce que tu voudras, usually, but not always, qualified by the words "as long as it doesn't hurt anyone".

By coincidence, on the day that the ECHR's judgment was pronounced, I happened to be travelling on a Tube train in central London on to one of whose carriages marched a girl wearing a T-shirt with the slogan – printed in exceptionally large letters – "Who invited this c***?" One could see at a glance how badly this was going down with the throngs of parents out enjoying the half-term holidays with their children, but, this being England, no one said anything. And how is one supposed to react to what is clearly not an exercise in freedom of expression, but an exercise in the freedom to annoy everyone within 20 yards? Remonstrate? Call the police? Move into the next carriage? Politely explain that one of the elementary failings of modern life is its confusion of liberty with licence?

If reluctance to intervene is one great drawback to the freedom of expression debate, then another is the series of evasions brought to it by the nervous modern liberal. In the early 2000s, for example, there was a tremendous fuss in Glasgow when certain shops were found to be selling shirts advertising the death metal band Cradle of Filth embellished with the slogan "Jesus is a c***". Complaints were met with pious noises to the effect that it wasn't a retailer's job to act as censor. To which one or two commentators quite reasonably wondered if the shops would have been happy to stock a shirt whose slogan read "Allah is a motherfucker" or "We hate Vishnu". The answer, naturally, was no, as Muslims and Hindus take these insults seriously and the consequence would not be a polite letter from a bishop but a religious riot.

And what about the girl on the Tube, who can only have put on the shirt that morning with the deliberate aim of offending everyone she met? The proper response, I later decided, was that we should all have laughed at her, and that her subsequent progress up the escalator at Piccadilly should have been accompanied by rounds of ironic applause. Perhaps it would be better to hoot the Naked Rambler in the street rather than waste public money on taking him to court.