Built around the gloomy premise that "the liberal phase in our history seems to be coming to an end", his bracing synthesis of case-studies, flashpoints, political theories, lively précis of tracts or trials and close-focus storytelling shows that the national grip on liberty has seldom held firm. Never granted from above by benevolent rulers, and never riveted in place by codes and constitutions, our liberties grew piecemeal in "moments of storm and passion", via boat-rocking minority campaigns often pursued by "seedy adventurers" in the teeth of all respectable opinion. They triumphed – if they did – by accident and blunder.
Prior licensing of books and newspapers lapsed in 1695 solely due to a "legislative fumble". The libertine radical John Wilkes stage-managed the case of Entick vs Carrington in 1763 to prove that ministers could be subject to the common law when their enforcers raided the homes of dissidents.
"Liberty has come from calculated provocation and opportunism," Wilson maintains, as well as from "large mobs of people who have scared the government". And small mobs, too. Introduced in wartime, identity cards almost went up in smoke in 1951 when the British Housewives' League tried to burn theirs outside Parliament. Rain spoiled the party (though Mrs Irene Lovelock was "partly successful with a frying pan", reported The Times). The cards soon died, in 1952. Time and again, "the direct action of bloody-minded individuals" has widened liberty for all.