When freedom becomes merely taking a liberty? DJ TAYLOR Sunday 2 November 2014
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.