During the warm heights of the summer holidays, my wife sent me off to get some bags of ice to have at home. As a rule, I don’t like large supermarkets – rows and rows of seemingly similar items, all priced slightly differently, packaged as attractively as possible, screaming out “buy me; not him”. Give me Budgens any day. But popping out for some ice seemed relatively harmless, so off I went. To my great surprise, upon reaching the main freezer, I was confronted with a choice of ice. Three different brands; same size bags; same price; just different brands and different packaging. It is rather embarrassing to admit that I stood there for a while wondering why, and what in fact was the difference between them all, before making a decision on which to buy. Choice comes in all shapes and sizes – at the other end of a very large spectrum, who would be in David Cameron’s shoes at the moment, trying to decide whether or not to bomb Iraq – on the one hand, how can the World stand by and watch what is happening over there, which is a direct attack on what the vast majority of us would hold as civilised values. On the other hand, recent first-hand experience has shown that many innocent people will be killed, a whole new wave of terrorists may well be created and it is hard to see immediately where and how it all stops. We confront choice on an hourly basis – and it ranges from the trivial, and frankly annoying, to the monumental and potentially overwhelming.
But the alternative to choice is, of course, no choice. I have a close Zimbabwean friend who tells me of his family’s experiences in the time of President Mugabe’s worst excesses, only about 10 years ago. At that time, to go to a supermarket was to be confronted by rows of completely empty shelves. Imagine the terror. What little food could be bought cost quite literally wheelbarrows of cash in a country where inflation had run riot and money had lost all value. To find food, one had to either barter and exchange with friends, or drive – on a two day round trip – to neighbouring Zambia to stock up at their supermarkets and of course, to get petrol. Likewise, what choice do the Iraqi people have at the moment? What say does the shopkeeper have, the librarian, the road sweeper? They face being bombed or being left to the mercy of Isil; and they do not even have the right, or the power, to make that appalling choice.
As a country, and as individuals, we are unspeakably lucky. We cannot choose everything we do; but at least we have the right to choice in most things which matter. We must respect that right, must respect each other’s decisions, and must never take for granted the liberties which many generations have toiled to achieve for us.