In the build-up to President Trump’s visit to the UK, British social media was awash with stories of the “Baby Trump” balloon – a 20-foot tall inflatable depicting the President as an angry infant in a nappy. Much of the hype surrounding the blimp was centred around London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to allow protesters to fly it over London.
Khan defended his decision to allow the balloon under the guise of support for freedom of speech. This is rather ironic, considering that this is the very same mayor who banned “body-shaming” adverts of thin women from the London Underground. It seems that the freedom to offend only applies to visiting world leaders and not to Khan himself.
Hypocrisy aside, the Trump balloon saga is a fitting representation of a far greater problem to freedom in Britain: the fact that the protesters needed permission in the first place.
Whereas many of us expected a zeppelin-sized baby to dominate the London sky, the real balloon looked far smaller in person, floating a mere 30-meters over the crowd. This begs the question: why did such a small balloon need permission from the state? It certainly didn’t fly high enough to pose any danger to air traffic, nor was it big enough to represent much of a disruption in any other obvious ways.
This is the irony in the Mayor’s statement. He may have granted permission to the protestors in order to support their freedom of speech, but that is undermined by the fact that permission had to be granted in the first place.
Sadly, the need for state permission is becoming all too common in the UK. As one of the birthplaces of liberal thought, Britain has been and should continue to be a beacon of liberty. As the seminal philosopher, John Stuart Mill said: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
Yet today, the latter points are indeed being used as a justification for more government control. Take, for instance, recent legislation regarding the purchase and ownership of knives. In response to increasing rates of stabbings, Brits can no longer order knives online – regardless of whether it is a zombie blade or a simple kitchen knife.
The state may claim that this is done as part of an attempt to curtail violent crime – and, therefore, to prevent harm to others – but in reality, it simply denies law-abiding Brits their consumer choice.
Both the Trump balloon and knife legislation are two sides of the same problematic coin: overzealous paternalism. Whether it’s asking for permission to fly a small balloon, to buy a knife online, or even just to keep your online messages away from prying eyes, people in the UK are becoming increasingly dependent upon the say-so of the state.
We are already paying the price for this expansion of state control. This year, Britain dropped 18 places in press freedom, becoming one of the worst Western countries for journalistic liberty. This is as a result of more encompassing laws regarding espionage and surveillance, which allows the state to more easily control what journalists are able to see and say.
It’s time to think very deeply about where we are slowly heading as a country. Why do we need permission to fly a balloon? Why aren’t we allowed to buy cutlery online? Why should we persecute journalists for viewing and sharing controversial content?
If there’s one thing to take from the Trump protests, it should be the worrying scope in which the state controls our lives. Because Britain is the birthplace of liberal philosophy – it’s time we acted like it.
Richard Mason is Editor of SpeakFreely.today.