9th July 2021

I was raised in the Church of England, even singing in the parish choir. Our vicar was an austere man, hailing from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, and one of his oft-repeated sayings was that ‘privilege carries responsibility’. I had my disagreements with that man, all the more so as I grew older, but this particular dictum has nevertheless stayed with me over the years, despite its somewhat Victorian tone – the sort of moral lesson our great-grandmothers were expected to sew into samplers as little girls.

A variant of that saying would be ‘freedom carries responsibility’, the notion that when we choose to decide for ourselves what we will or will not do (rather than simply going along with society’s dictates and expectations), we must also accept some degree of accountability for the consequences of our actions, especially on others.

This issue comes into sharp focus for me with the news that we’re soon to decide for ourselves whether we’ll wear a facemask as lockdown restrictions are eased. What is intended as a public health precaution is talked about in some quarters as if Britons are being arbitrarily denied fundamental freedoms. But surely helping protect one another from a pandemic that’s brought death and misery to millions around the world is motivation enough, especially as we’re nowhere near seeing the overall threat recede or be contained? How we cope once the facemask is optional remains to be seen, but I find myself rather curiously wishing that my old vicar were still around to remind us not to forget the duty we owe one another to use freedom responsibly.

Ken Stewart