CentreForum Liberal Hero of the Week #40: Stephen Gough (aka The Naked Rambler)

by Stephen Tall on June 28, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. The series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains.

cf hero stephen gough

Stephen Gough (aka The Naked Rambler)

Campaigner for free expression through nudity
Reason: for exemplifying non-conformity (and society’s hypocrisy)

There’s a fine line between heroism and sheer bloody-minded eccentricity. It’s a line that Stephen Gough walks (without the aid of clothes, naturally) every day. For those who don’t know, Mr Gough is a 50-something former Royal Marine who had an epiphany 10 years ago, described in a Guardian profile:

if he was good, then his body was good. “The human body isn’t offensive,” he says. “If that’s what we’re saying, as human beings, then it’s not rational.”

Since then, he has thrown off his clothes. In return, society has deprived him of his liberty: he has spent most of the past decade in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. The ins-and-outs of his arrests, re-arrests, imprisonments and re-imprisonments are detailed on his Wikipedia page.

Some people will look at Stephen Gough — don’t worry, curiosity isn’t a crime — and question why he doesn’t simply cover himself up. His self-confessed ‘hardcore’ naturism is making his life a misery, and also that of his family (he writes to his two teenage children ‘without reply’).

The authorities, inbetween putting him on trial for variations on antisocial behaviour and breach of the peace, have offered compromises to try and allow him to get on with his life, nakedly, on terms he finds unacceptable. But he’s beyond compromise:

“We can either end up living a life that others expect of us or lives based on our own truth. The difference is the difference between living a conscious life or one that is unconscious. And that’s the difference between living and not living.”

Our legal system finds it hard to cope with fundamentalist oddballs like Mr Gough. Vague laws are invoked to keep him out of sight: “likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”, “capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”, “conduct severe enough to cause alarm to ordinary people and threaten serious disturbance to the community”.

How a naked man (or woman) walking around, minding their own business, can cause distress is beyond me. Provoke a snigger, yes: but not alarm. The authorities say otherwise. As a result, Stephen Gough has already served more time in jail than Stuart Hall will for his crimes. And though sex is used to sell pretty much everything, public nudity is what we choose to label a crime. I’m not sure it’s the Naked Rambler who’s the perverse one here.

I’m a Non-Conformist by upbringing and a Non-Conformist in belief. Stephen Gough is choosing to live the life he wants to in a way which causes no harm to others. It might be convenient to us if he at least put a sock on it. But putting him in prison is an extreme reaction which says much, much more about us than it does about him.

I’m not 100% sure he’s a hero. But his single-minded desire pursuit of personal freedom deserves a respect we’re denying him.

PS: the nomination of Stephen Gough as Liberal Hero was put forward by CentreForum’s Adam Corlett, who pointed out to me this discussion of J.S. Mill:

“There are certain offensive acts, e.g. public indecency, that Mill is willing to prohibit: “there are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners and, coming thus within the category of offences against others, may rightly be prohibited. Of this kind are offences against decency… the objection to publicity being equally strong in the case of many actions not in themselves condemnable.””

Mill is my Liberal Villain of the week! ;)

I fear if I name J.S. Mill a Liberal Villain the universe may implode (or at least I’ll kop a lot of flak, which is almost as bad). But duly noted that Mill, in wanting to ban public violations of good manners, wasn’t always A Perfect Liberal.

You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.