« Sea Levels in Vietnam | Main | Met Office Fun & Games »

The cardinal distinction between democracy and totalitarianism

Skimming through a holiday book I came across this quote from the dark days of the war. Its refreshing frankness made me sit up and want to share it:

The following extract from Churchill's Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945
by Nicholas Rankin (pp379-380) is taken from a minute to the Security Executive, made on 06 September 1940, by Sir Alexander Maxwell, Permanent Under Secretary at the Home Office, in response to a proposed defence regulation making it 'an offence to attempt to subvert duly constituted authority.'

There would be widespread opposition to such a regulation as inconsistent with English liberty. Our tradition is that while orders issued by the duly constituted authority must be obeyed, every civilian is at liberty to show, if he can, that such orders are silly or mischievous and the duly constituted authorities are composed of fools or rogues [...] Accordingly we do not regard activities which are designed to bring the duly constituted authorities into contempt as necessarily subversive; they are only subversive if they are calculated to incite persons to disobey the law, or to change the Government by unconstitutional means. This doctrine gives, of course, great and indeed dangerous liberty to persons who desire revolution, or desire to impede the war effort [...] but the readiness to take this risk is the cardinal distinction between democracy and totalitarianism.

I somehow doubt that spirit still exists in Whitehall.

Quote via consonants


In spite of the pressures of total war, this civil servant remained in the British tradition.
"Passive obedience" sounds a bit wimpish but was the doctrine by which people obeyed the letter of the
law with which they did not necessarily agree, whilst retaining the right to complain about its application
and, possibly, to get it changed.

This is now frowned on. In the 2005 election, I lost count of the number of times when people speaking to
me on their doorsteps suddenly checked themselves and asked "Am I allowed to say that?"

The Thought Police have now won.

Excellent article. Any chance you could change the pale grey typeface to BLACK so old codgers like me can read it without having to sniff the screen? There's a reason books are printed in black and white, you know ;->>

Post a comment