Neil Oliver on the importance of freedom | Launch of the 2021 Legatum Prosperity Index

“Defence of freedom must be lived out and enacted – every moment of every day, ideally, and thereby made real and kept vivid with the flowing blood of the living. If we mouth the words about defending freedom, and yet stand by while those freedoms are eroded and erased, then we dishonour the dead, and also each other.”

A commentary for the Legatum Prosperity Index™ programme

Published 25 Nov 2021

The below commentary is an excerpt from historian, author, and broadcaster, Neil Oliver’s speech at the launch of the 2021 Legatum Prosperity Index

Usually when asked to do some public speaking I indulge myself by riffing on an idea – some might say, making it up as I go along. Given the gravity of the situation in which we find ourselves, however, and because time is short, I have put my thoughts on paper. If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to read them to you.

Having said that, I’ll start not with my own words but with those of Humbert Wolfe, in Requiem for a Soldier:

“Down some cold field in a world outspoken 
the young men are walking together, slim and tall, 
and though they laugh to one another, silence is not broken; 
there is no sound however clear they call. 

“They are speaking together of what they loved in vain here, 
but the air is too thin to carry the things they say. 
They were young and golden, but they came on pain here, 
and their youth is age now, their gold is grey. 

“Yet their hearts are not changed, and they cry to one another, 
‘What have they done with the lives we laid aside? 
Are they young with our youth, gold with our gold, my brother? 
Do they smile in the face of death, because we died?’ 

“Down some cold field in a world uncharted 
the young seek each other with questioning eyes. 
They question each other, the young, the golden hearted, 
of the world that they were robbed of in their quiet paradise.”

I think about those lives, those lives of young men, over and over –

“What have they done with the lives we laid aside?” they ask. “Are they young with our youth, gold with our gold, my brother? Do they laugh in the face of death because we died?”

This is the time of year when we promise the dead – and perhaps more importantly each other – that we will defend the peace and the freedoms for which our ancestors paid with their young lives.

Those words are only hollow, empty, however, if we do no more than speak them. Defence of freedom must be lived out and enacted – every moment of every day, ideally, and thereby made real and kept vivid with the flowing blood of the living. If we mouth the words about defending freedom, and yet stand by while those freedoms are eroded and erased, then we dishonour the dead, and also each other.

In the civilised west we have known peace, in the main, since the end of the Second World War. There have been countless conflicts since – of course there have – and our fighting men and women have been in harm’s way over and over again. But for most of us here in our homes, we have known unprecedented peace and freedom for more than 70 years.

It is my belief that we have lived in peace and freedom for so long – longer than the biblical three score years and ten – that too many of us have come to take those gifts utterly for granted.

So taken for granted are our freedoms now, we have allowed ourselves to believe that the way we have lived here for a few decades is somehow natural – that freedom such as we have known is in the natural order of things. But, of course, even the most cursory look at history reveals that our way of life here has been the most unnatural of any yet seen on planet earth. Our way of peace and freedom has been nothing less than bizarre by comparison to everything else that has gone before. We are inside a miraculous soap bubble of the utmost fragility.

Or you might say rather that we exist in a penthouse flat at the top of a great tower. We have been afforded the best views in the history of humankind but only because we are held aloft by that tower made of centuries and millennia of suffering and sacrifice.

Every significant civilisation before ours – every kingdom and empire – was a dictatorship built on the slavery and exploitation of the masses by a tiny elite that persuaded or frightened everyone in its thrall into accepting that only a tiny handful of special people deserved an elegant and elevated life.

Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Persia, Rome, Ottoman – every one of them built on, and by, slaves whose lives were deemed to matter not at all. That is the natural order of things – that is how things were for most people, almost all of the time. It is awareness of that fact, constant awareness, that should make us see how blessedly unnatural our way of life has been, for what amounts to just a few, ridiculously lucky generations in the scheme of things.

For a couple of centuries, and on account of a sequence of events nothing short of miraculous, something different has flowered here. The end of slavery; votes for the masses, education for all, rule of law, equality of men and women, tolerance of religions, tolerance of sexuality. It has not been perfect. Some would say it has been a long way from perfect. But when I hear what we have had run down and damned with endless criticism, I want to shout out, “Compared to what? Compared to where?”

I have long been fascinated by Frances Hutcheson, who had the chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University during the Scottish Enlightenment. He taught that by acting morally, and demanding the happiness of others, a person might make for him or herself a happiness of the most lasting and meaningful kind. Happiness was not a random gift from God but rather the product of acting morally towards others. One of his students was John Witherspoon, second President of Princeton, and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. There are good reasons for thinking the concept of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness arose from the thinking of Frances Hutcheson.

But there you have it – happiness is a collateral benefit of being moral.

What has been done these months past has not, I say, been moral. People’s lives have been stopped; children’s educations set aside; livelihoods destroyed; people’s physical and mental health compromised, in many cases beyond repair. People left isolated, society atomised. This has been immoral. The price paid in hopes of controlling a virus has been too high.

All around the world – in Canada and North America, throughout Europe, in Australia and New Zealand, in Israel, in South Africa – governments are quite simply stamping on the rights of their populations. Rubber bullets and pepper spray; over mighty police forces; the deployment of psychological tricks and tactics; fear and propaganda. In Austria they are segregating the population – dividing the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, identifying the clean and the unclean, the good and the bad.

This is immoral. Just because a government makes something law, does not necessarily make it moral, far less good. History is littered with the damage caused when governments passed immoral laws, for whatever reason.

In every one of those countries, ours included, any power invested in government is a loan from the people. None of those populations voted to be ruled by its government. Rulership is the obsession of kings, emperors and other despots. Democratic governments exist to defend freedom – to enable people to go about their lives and to make the best of them.

With every day that passes it becomes harder to avoid the conclusion that our western civilisation is being dismantled, piece by piece, by those that would see it gone forever and replaced with something else. It remains to be seen what that something else might be, or what we the proletariat will be allowed to do there.

We have also been provoked about pronouns and gender. We have been told to see ourselves first and foremost as skin colours, and religions. We have been told to focus on our immutable differences. We have been told to feel shame about our history and culture. We have been told to forget about owning cars and taking advantage of international travel. We must contemplate smaller, colder lives. We are told this by people who say one thing and do another. Whatever new life awaits the mass of us, those sending us on our way are clearly intending to carry on as they have always done. The hypocrisy of our leaders and elites must surely stick in our throats.

Always we must ask ourselves – Who benefits from all of this? During the pandemic the billionaires have seen the greatest ever increase in their personal wealth. For the elite, it has been a good war.

Advantage is being taken of a situation. Millions of people have been frightened, and deliberately, into a submissive state of mind. Freedom has been traded for an illusion of security.

What I feel around me – more than fear, angst, anxiety and uncertainty – is loss of confidence. I think that loss of confidence has been coming for a while and that these past months have only highlighted and accelerated the process.

Kenneth Clarke – the art historian, not the politician – wrote and made broadcasts about civilization.

More than anything else, he said, meaningful civilisation requires confidence – confidence in the society in which we live – belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in our own mental powers as functioning individuals.

He said all the great civilisations have had a weight of positive energy behind them. People think civilisation is about fine buildings, the Arts and culture, education for all, equality before the law, fine sensibilities and good conversation. These are among the results of civilisation, but they are not what make a civilisation. A society can have all of these niceties and yet still fail. Civilisations like Rome and Greece collapsed on account of exhaustion.

Clarke also noted that the modern Greek poet C.P. Cavafy wrote, in Waiting for the Barbarians, about the inhabitants of a grand city waiting, behind their walls, for the arrival of barbarians known to be massing nearby. Such is the hopeless state of mind of the city dwellers, they are actually looking forward to the invasion – just because it promises change from all that now bores them. News arrives that the barbarians have moved on.

“Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.”

I started with the words of Humbert Wolfe – a British Italian man of letters. In his Uncelestial City he wrote:

You cannot hope 
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the 
British journalist.
But, seeing what 
the man will do
unbribed, there’s 
no occasion to

Our mainstream media, bribed or not, has been greatly to blame for what has unfolded these months past. There has been a narrative made dominant and all but irresistible by the enthusiasm of the majority of the media for cheerleading the manipulation of the majority of the people into a frightened, angst-ridden, compliant state.

This is lamentable – but not new and not really surprising, either, for anyone who has paid attention to history.

Now … enough already with the doom and gloom. I am among the first to admit that I have what might accurately be described as Miserable Bastard tendencies. If anyone were to describe me thus, it would not be the first time. Fortunately, I am aware of those tendencies and I seek the antidote for myself.

I believe that hope is not just a good thing – but also irresistible. Hope is as perennial as the grass, and as determined. It cannot be kept down, not even by marching boots and concrete.

It can be tempting to think that entities may grow too big to fail. At the moment we are in the grip of an alliance between state, big business and technocrats. So much seems to be going their way.

But history shows that entities inevitably grow so big that can only fail. The energy required to keep millions, or billions of people under control and going against their better, hopeful natures, is ruinous. Such an effort is doomed to exhaustion by its sheer scale. It is simply too much hard work.

Bad ideas fail. Always. Good ideas cannot be kept down. The return to better days will be led by those who have paid attention to history and so know that hope, like the grass, needs only the light of day. As it says in the Talmud, Every blade of grass has its angel that bends it over whispering grow, grow.

I believe that what we have watched since the spring of last year, or thereabouts, is an exercise in hubris, which is to say over confidence on the part of those who sought to take advantage of a situation so as to seek ends that might otherwise have remained out of reach. But too many people have been made unhappy, and that situation will not sustain.

History also shows that it does not take the majority of a population to make the difference that matters. Rather history shows that it only takes a handful of hopeful people to let in the light.

Price’s Law says that the square root of the number of people in any organisation does 50 per cent of the work. If you have 10,000 people in your organisation, 50 percent of the work is down to just 100 of the people. This might be hard to believe, but is proven in every case.

Perhaps above all else, what is needed is for just some few of us to acknowledge that we here in this part of the world have been the luckiest in the story of creation so far. What we have had, this fragile bubble, this tower built of the sacrifice and endeavour of others, is the greatest gift any generation has ever been granted. Ensuring that gift might be handed on to our children demands that we first recognise, and then commit ourselves to maintaining, that which we have had.

You can watch Neil Oliver give this speech on YouTube by clicking below or here.


You can watch the whole launch event in full by clicking below or here.