Monday, June 20, 2005

Local hospitals and the Price of Freedom ...

What do local hospital services in Copeland have to do with the price of freedom ?

The price of both good public services in a democracy and the freedom which that democracy represents is the same - and it is the price which Ben Franklin identified more than 200 years ago.

During the American revolution he said that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance." He meant that no free society will survive unless the citizens are on guard to protect their liberties. His statement is true in another sense - once the members of society are given through the ballot box some measure of control over how that society is run, we can no longer leave the whole burden of responsiblity for what happens in our country to others, be it some King or Baron or our neighbours.

Our votes, words, and actions, including any decision not to act, will affect what happens to all the members of our society and those in the rest of the world with whom that society comes into contact. The vote does not make us all-powerful, but it gives us responsibility to use it as wisely as we can. One part of that is that, if we want good public services we need to exercise that eternal vigilance to make sure they stay that way.

This is about to come home to us again in West Cumbria. Following a huge public consultation last year and early this year, things have appeared quiet as the NHS Trusts absorb the results and work with their colleagues to refine a new model for health care in this area. Before long they will come back with proposals - which will have to be made workable in the face of financial shortfalls and continuing difficults with recruitment and retention.

Some of the proposals which emerge are likely to be highly controversial. Anyone who cares about the future of health services in Cumbria would be well advised to exercise some of that eternal vigilance in seeing what comes forward in the next few weeks and months.

Bringing the argument back full circle, Ben Franklin and his contemporaries were well aware of one particular threat to liberty which too many in our government seem to be forgetting. That is the danger they themselves may pose - the threat to a free society from its own guardians and leaders who may become so obsessed wiht a real or imagined external threat that they dismantle the rights and freedoms they were elected to protect. Some terrible legislation was brought forward just before the last election - some was abandoned, other parts were eventualy passed with a "sunset clause" so that it will lapse without further consideration. Some of these ideas are now coming back. The right of freedom from arbitrary arrest, which goes back in England nearly nine hundred years and survived the challenge of Nazi germany and Soviet Russia, has been compromised to a greater degree than under either of those threats.

During the general election in Copeland, local parliamentary candidates were asked at a debate what we thought about the bill to make incitement to religous hatred illegal. All of us responded, including Jamie Reed who is now the MP, that non-ethnic religous groups such as muslims should have the same protection from incitement to violence as ethnic groups such as Jews. However, we also expressed concern that this should not be allowed to extend to prosecuting those who express their disagreement with a religion, and Jamie said he was pleased that the incitement to religous hatred bill had been dropped. Well, now that the election is over the bill has been brough back. I hope Jamie has the courage of his convictions and votes against it.

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