Long Reads

A Brief Examination of Locke’s early principles in Britain today.

John Locke arguably set the scene for modern political thought- but how influential are his ideas in Britain-and indeed the world-today?


The ideas and concepts surrounding John Locke have unsurprisingly formed an impactful political debate over how immediate and modern his ideas on property, law and state of nature are today. Coupled alongside separated government, there are glimmers – or sharp bursts- of Lockesian thought in 21st century Britain.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of Locke’s works is his focus around natural law, particularly when these ideas arguably form heavy bonds with his other fundamental principles. First, it would be plausible to tackle the important nature of divine law in his work- to better found a potential argument about Locke in modern sentiment. Divine law, as widely covered, refers to the words that God has invested into scriptures and entrusted writers; and is fundamentally not universally understood, but in turn influential. Natural law is relevant in the sense that it represents moral traditions and duties- a key bonding element of human interaction and behaviour.

Such ideas can be used to explain the relevance of both in regards to the politics of gay-rights, particularly in the early corridors of the 2010s. Being gay was a violation of both the divine teachings of God and the peoples’ duties, relative to natural law. This link, albeit ambiguous, has perhaps been reflected in opposition to gay rights by prominent Conservative MPs- Thatcher implemented Section 28 in her government’s Local Government Act, and proceeding the 2013 Gay Marriage Act, a significant number of Conservative MPs voted against their government’s motion.

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Protestors campaign against the repressive, and now revoked, section 28.

Yet, it is hard to subscribe to Locke’s influence in modern respects over such a link in natural and divine law. Such ideas reflect a by-gone age of interpretations about moral duties, and they also demonstrate the vast inconsistencies in the works of Locke. It could therefore be of substance to suggest that Locke’s ideas regarding the premise of natural law is wholly moulded and entrenched in a older age. If this is to be the case, it should be underlined that urges regarding Locke’s influence as a catalyst for modern equality movements are desperately out of shape. Socially, gay rights is certainly prominent on the contemporary agenda, and of current relevance in the recent LGBT celebrations. Locke therefore, cannot be regarded as a stockbroker with an investment into modern politics- as the composition of interpretations relevant to natural and divine law today have arguably diverged on a grand scale since his time of writing.

The debate regarding Locke’s purchase on natural law has also been consumed with discourse relative to the clarity of his ideas of natural rights, which opens-up an interesting triadic between God, duty and preserved rights- such as freedom. Freedom was by accounts, the centrepoint of Locke’s philosophy, with fundamental chains locked between the intellectual capacity of humans to think rationally, and to obtain information to build identities associated with the wider institutions of the world. This has been labelled the ‘democratization of the mind’, to which he believed was spread in an egalitarian composition through the creation of humans- every one possessed such an ability that would aid their development as rational individuals. However, many believe he failed to adequately outline how one, through the material they had available to them, would adhere to God’s sanctions on life and duty. This in many respects is dependent upon the premise of the close relationship between divine reason and natural reason. The assumption that these variables draw upon similar distinctions is rather vague and possibly naive. It suggests Locke thought so confidently in the similarities of divine and natural reason that natural law (as affirmed by its close relationship to God) could not appear as arbitrary or as a potential loan to dystopian ideals, which would conflict with someone’s self-preservation.

Those who voted for Brexit on the basis of immigration, arguably were not self-conserving- they followed if anything, an arbitrary trail of political decision making.

In terms of modern relevance, this ambiguity may be indicative that such a position is broadly incorrect, and in some cases, discredits the potential of social struggles in shaping rational thought. It could be argued that issues over poverty, unemployment and immigration are interesting characteristics that are not applicable to the rational inquiries of Locke.

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Can the examination of political institutions, like Locke suggested, be critically examined if public perceptions of its adequacy are conflated with resentments about public life?

The conflation of social issues in the Brexit campaign for example, may be a symbol of this inadequate shaping of modern behaviour by Locke. Immigration played an important part in the Brexit debate, and if we take Locke’s natural law, which centres around self-preservation and the self-preservation of others; we can deduce that the ‘immigration’ vote centred around an abstractionist rational pursuit by some to vote against the interest of others. This is arguably a negation of the principle of natural law- as it can be interpreted as a direct action to expunge or violate against someone’s ability to own and invest in property. In terms of a rational prescriptive, this is uncommon as those who voted for Brexit on the basis of immigration, arguably were not self-conserving- they followed if anything, an arbitrary trail of political decision making. This is a potential example that suggests the lack of distinction in Locke’s philosophy for the human potential not to be rational, and to be insufficient in separating respectable materials and ideas from widely discredited ones. This in turn is relevant to the moral and social values that have perhaps elapsed since Locke. Economic depravity, resentment in the political system and a general discontent with public life may mean that his ideas simply cannot be present in today’s contemporary status-quo. The institutions of public life have vastly adapted, and so to has the composition of ideals in a largely developed social and economic time.

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“ASK ME MY THREE MAIN PRIORITIES FOR GOVERNMENT AND I TELL YOU: EDUCATION, EDUCATION AND EDUCATION”

This allows for a potential vacuum in his thoughts: were his ideas simply limited to the age in which they were written, or are they not definitive enough to be applied to the contemporary life of today? My mind, although fresh to such sensibilities, is partial to to the idea that Locke’s concepts on rationality are vaguely distributed today. Blair won in part down to his ‘education, education; education’ slogan (who doesn’t want better schools for their children?). And arguably, we have seen past Conservative party phrases such as the ‘long-term economic plan’ (2015-16) be shrewd components of political campaigning. But these examples rely upon vaguely associated ideas of Lockean thought and they are hardly binding enough to advocate for a clear presence of his thought today. 

Yet with many things in political discussion, it may all come down to one’s bearing of issues through their democratized processes of thought.

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