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The Naked Rambler is a show-off - but is jail really the answer?

The Daily Mail, Thursday, October 30, 2014

It was during the darkest days of the war and the most freezing and bitter winter that one February morning , after the rawest and coldest night so far, that a grim Chief Whip asked to see Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

A Conservative MP, he confided, had been arrested the previous evening when caught naked and in a compromising position with someone else, no less nude and compromised, in the middle of icy Richmond Park. To the whip’s amazement, Churchill simply had a helpless fit of the chuckles. ‘Gad sir,’ he at length declared, ‘it makes you proud to be British…’ We have a talent for seeing the wry, even funny side of human eccentricity and human folly. But when such tolerance is incessantly tried by the humourless and vain, it fast wears thin - and yesterday even the European Court of Human Rights made plain its lack of patience with Stephen Gough.

The 55-year-old ex-Royal Marine is best known to us, of course, as the Naked Rambler and, over the past 11 years, has been arrested dozens and dozens of times, the length of the land, for hiking along the Queen’s highway in little more than hairy socks, Doc Martins and a hat. Not that he has had much time of late to enjoy the countryside - between May 2006 and October 2012, Mr Gough enjoyed all of seven days of liberty. The rest he spent in this or that nick - segregated from other prisoners as, even when doing porridge, he refuses to wear clothes. Why Mr Gough chooses to inflict the spectacle of his body on the rest of us, whether we want to see it or not, we can scarcely imagine. Brad Pitt he ain’t - in such snaps of the Naked Rambler as can be published in a family newspaper, he best resembles a badly plucked boiling-fowl. Meanwhile, his obsession has cost him his marriage, estranged him from his children, wasted the time of untold policemen and - after years and years of it - has now ceased remotely to amuse anyone.

It is, he argues with scant coherence, all about freedom and is positively a public service to those confronted by his scraggy carcass in, say, deepest and green-wellied Perthshire. ‘I help them to confront their false beliefs about who they are,’ Gough mumbles. ‘They need someone like me to challenge them. We consider ourselves a democratic and free society but how far does that go? There’s a bigger thing at stake. I’m not sure what that is, but…’. And in the I-gotta-be-me spirit, he duly filed his moan with Strasbourg, beseeching the European Court of Human Rights to end the ‘repressive’ measures against him under the terms of Article 10, freedom of expression. Happily, the court was rather more eager to uphold the rights of, for instance, children in school playgrounds or the freedom of any of us not to be confronted involuntarily by Mr Gough’s presumably rather weathered unmentionables. ‘The applicant’s imprisonment is the consequence of his repeated violation of the criminal law in full knowledge of the consequences,’ pronounced Their European Worships after their morning bowls of hot chocolate, ‘through conduct which he knew full well not only goes against the standards of accepted public behaviour in any modern democratic society but also is liable to be alarming and morally and otherwise offensive to other, un-warned members of the public going about their ordinary business. Article 10 does not go so far as to enable individuals, even those sincerely convinced of the virtue of their own beliefs, to repeatedly impose their anti-social conduct on other, unwilling members of society  and then to claim a disproportionate interference with the exercise of their freedom of expression when the state, in its duty to protect the public from public nuisances, enforces the law…’.

Mr Gough, of course, is frankly baffled. ‘Today’s decision from the ECHR is a disappointment,’ he pronounced on Tuesday, as if he expected his words to be cast in bronze tablets as he spoke. ‘I expected them to take the wider view. They have not. Then again, what great endeavour ever succeeded without having to surmount many obstacles that stood in its way?’.

Mr Gough is checked frequently and found sane even if, clearly, his bloody-mindedness is obvious. He seems caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare in which the magisterial state has no answer to the problem of what to do except jail him. If there were 1,000 Naked Ramblers, there would be legislation for them. But a one-man awkward squad leaves the system baffled. For, no matter how objectionable you find Mr Gough or his proclivities, can it be right that the only answer is to condemn him to years in solitary? But, Mr Gough, you must excuse us - on the planet inhabited by the rest of us, you are a rather sad, probably disturbed individual, trotting about hither and yon in your birthday suit. This is not the Sistine Chapel or the March on Washington. All that flashing is just… flashing, you know, and not the Annunciation.

The first principle that evidently eludes this pompous ass is that nobody, anywhere, in any society, anytime, accepts an absolute right of self-expression. We do not have the right mischievously to shout ‘FIRE!’ in a packed theatre; wear badges with racist slogans, or take - far less publish - indecent photographs of children. Even short of those extremes, in many situations we instinctively know what is - or is not - appropriate wear, bearing or demeanour.

A year or two back, a tedious woman who three decades ago attended my Edinburgh secondary school launched an online rant against our headmistress of the day - for the enormity of rebuking the teenage little madam, repeatedly, for turning up at school with vividly dyed purple hair. But part of a school’s job - as other former classmates now pushing 50 rapidly pointed out - is to prepare us for real life in the adult world. There are scores of careers and working environments (banks, offices, the courts of law, a firm of funeral directors) where tattoos, piercings, extremes of fashion and - indeed - a purple hair-don’t are, rightly, deemed incongruous and unacceptable. The rigours of climate and midges apart, a naked male going about Scotland’s public spaces in smirking vainglory is no less offensive and absurd.

Mr Gough’s vast self-regard, self-importance and, yes, selfishness highlight anew that great and malign legacy of the Sixties that is still the dominant ideology of the British Left - that curious fusion between Marx and Freud. Time was that the only oppression that mattered and had to be fought was economic - poverty, rack-renting landlords, exploitation of workers, sweatshops and so on. Now, suddenly, all sorts of people are encouraged to feel ‘oppressed’ - people of colour, people of exotic faith, women, homosexuals and so on. Somewhere along the road, life choices have cunningly been conflated with involuntary race and gender. The big fat human right nowadays is to be ‘authentic’ and anyone else’s right to disapprove of a given lifestyle is suddenly menaced because, apparently, it threatens such ‘authenticity’. Hence we have reached the ludicrous situation, for instance, where people in Britain have lost their jobs for letting it slip that they personally disapprove of same-sex marriage - an institution, not two decades ago, recognised by no state on Earth. All that matters to the Naked rambler, likewise, is his own ‘truth’. All he worships, in the end, is himself. But Stephen Gough is not heroic, not courageous, not inspirational. And nowadays he is not in the least bit funny - he is but repellant and pathetic.

John MacLeod