Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


By Riley Roberts
Thus far, the comparative analysis in which Shawn and I have engaged has been centered around a fairly specific set of topics related to major debates that plague both the US and the UK.

But perhaps it's time to explore something a little more basic. In America, any definition of democracy will generally include at least some mention of the freedoms that allow it to function. In these few blog posts, we have discussed issues related to broader freedoms and the ways in which our respective democracies deal with these issues; now it is time to discuss the freedoms that shape our democracies themselves.

In the USA, a few of the most essential freedoms we enjoy have been enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Of these, one can reasonably argue that some of the most basic are guaranteed by the First Amendment. These five freedoms, descibed in just 45 words total, together consititute the core of democratic ideals. Religion, speech, press, assembly and petition - five vital freedoms, five bastions of democracy, five things that shape the people, institutions, and policies that define us.

But do they exist in Britain? And, if so, in what form?

The answer to the first question is surprisingly simple: yes, each of the celebrated Five Freedoms is alive and well in the United Kingdom. The second question becomes slightly more complex, and it is thus necessary to briefly discuss each freedom in turn:

RELIGION - Unlike the United States, the UK has endured the establishment of at least two major state religions over the years. For centuries, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were ruled by Catholics, and so they lived under the heavy influence of Rome. In the 16th century, however, King Henry VIII famously ended his kingdom's association with Catholicism, and the Anglican Church (or Church of England) became wedded with the state. It is surprising to learn that, technically, this relationship still exists, and the Anglican Church remains the legally-established church of the English state.

In the present day, however, religious freedom is practiced as freely as it is anywhere in the world. Until Gordon Brown took over the premiership last month, all Anglican Bishops were appointed under the authority of the Crown and the Prime Minister (at least nominally), but he has at last formally ceded that right to the Church. No religion - even the established one - receives any public funding, and the wall between church and state that many Americans hold so dear is maintained (in practice) throughout the UK.

SPEECH - While powerful monarchs reigned over the British Isles, freedom of speech was limited at best and nonexistent at worst. Brutal kings and queens - notably Henry VIII, mentioned above - succeeded in curtailing free expression to a shocking degree whenever they felt the need. With a strong monarch and a weak Parliament up until relatively recent times, protections for free speech have been absent for much of British history.

Today, though, speech throughout the UK is at least as robust as it is in America. Even on the floor of the House of Commons, where restraint and decorum might be expected, Members of Parliament can and frequently do exercise this freedom in animated fashion. As with religious freedom (and indeed all British constitutional principles), there is no Bill of Rights to guarantee free speech in perpetuity (although Brown has suggested that one be written). Precedent is law in the UK, and over the years precedent has tended to provide for healthy and vigorous free speech.

PRESS - Ah, the storied English tabloids. As monarchy faded throughout the realm, British newspapers emerged as robust defenders of public (or individual) opinion. In fact, over the years many of the minor papers have become infamous for their tabloid-like coverage.

Yet the marriage of so many things to the government persists. State-owned media outlets such as the BBC, however, long ago cast aside any editorial control the government may once have had. Today, the BBC stands as one of the world's most reputable news organizations, and it frequently runs stories critical of the government that still technically owns it. In practice, the British press is as independent as any, and may be the best in the world.

(One brief side note: it is true that laws related to slander and libel do little to protect the press in the UK, and lawsuits are frequent, but this has little demonstrable effect on the freedom enjoyed by the press as a whole.)

ASSEMBLY - As in America, people have been allowed to assemble peacably in the United Kingdom for many years. Even under the most terrifying monarchs, protests from angry mobs have been difficult to prevent (except through the use of force, which was frequent at times). Over the years, both sides have become tamer - riots and pitchforks have generally ceased to be standard practice, and any use of force on the part of the government has been limited to nonlethal measures employed to disperse dangerous crowds. Protests, and the government's reaction to them, are very similar to those in the United States and other free democracies.

PETITION - Though it is becoming a familiar theme in these brief blurbs, I will again merely state that, as Parliamentary practices strengthened and the British crown faded from power, the people's right to petition has come into its own. In fact, I will go even further - one of the very first democratic petitions in the world, at least in a crude sense, might well be the Magna Carta. Signed in 1215 by King John and a number of his nobles, the document represents one of the first in a series of dramatic steps that would eventually lead to full-fledged Parliamentary democracy. The King was compelled (read: coerced) into signing the treaty by a disgruntled group of nobles who wanted their voices to be heard. Certainly, the tactics they used to get their petition to the King were far less than democratic - but at some basic level, a petition is a petition. Today, such coercion is far from necessary, and Britons may exercise this vital right as freely as they see fit.

From these brief explorations of the Five Freedoms, we can easily see that, while the precise nature of each may be different 'across the pond,' the democratic freedoms that we enjoy in America also exist in the United Kingdom. Historically, these freedoms have come into being at different times and for different reasons, but the essential democratic spirit of each remains. I suppose it's exactly as you might expect; both the US and the UK have working democracies, though the mechanism that powers each is different - similarly, these five freedoms persist in both, though some distinctions must necessarily be made between the two.

At the heart of this blog entry is the essential fact that, regardless of differences, the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment remain vital to the survival of democracy. Clearly, study of the UK's system proves that such values are not necessarily unique to America, though constitutional protections for these values may well be. Each of the Five Freedoms is an integral part of any democracy - so integral, in fact, that each has arisen in democratic systems an ocean away from one another and, in some cases, centuries apart.

The fact that these freedoms are not static is further evidence of their importance. At the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, we are dedicated to the preservation of these freedoms and to showcasing the ongoing struggle to define each one of them. This history - the history of the UK and the USA and all other democratic societies - is a relevant part of that mission.

If you have not already done so, I encourage you to explore the Museum's website and our beautiful space in Chicago's Tribune Tower for further information.


Post a Comment

<< Home


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at