Matthew Parris is a former Conservative MP, Times and Spectator columnist and BBC broadcaster
[Editor’s note: This is one of a series of blog pieces on our spring issue, ‘COVID-19 and the Politics of Fear‘, edited by Matt Flinders, Dan Degerman and Matthew Johnson]
At home and abroad, the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic may be interpreted as a power-grab by government over the populace. There’s no denying this. That is what has happened.
It is possible to call this a conspiracy by politicians. Fear of death and disease (runs the argument) is used to anaesthetise people’s normal appetite for individual liberty, and then, having stupefied our freedom-loving instincts, to leave us in an induced coma from which we never recover. Just as income tax was first used to raise money to pay for the Napoleonic wars but never subsequently discarded, so (you hear people say) a dangerous virus is being used to establish the principle that when and why we may leave home, whether or how we congregate, and even for what reasons we’re permitted to leave the country, have become legitimate matters for government. So once the pandemic is over, new reasons may be found for government to keep old powers that they enjoy exercising, whether justifiably or not.
How about masks on crowded Tube trains forever, for example, to stop the spread of life-threatening winter influenzas? Or a clamping down on low-cost mass international tourism, for reasons of climate emergency if not Covid-19? You can certainly see how these new controls on our lives could be adapted to serve new arguments.
I have only one problem with this “plot by politicians to take away our freedom” argument. There is no such plot and never has been. And by positing a conspiracy by bureaucrats and ministers greedy for power, we distort the argument into a dispute about intentions when we should be focussing on consequences rather than motives. Motives – of which those they inhabit are often anyway unaware, being unconscious – are a fruitlessly cloudy area of debate, and better left to psychoanalysts than political historians.
So whether or not we agree with all the restrictions on liberty we’ve had to endure, we should concede at least that our government and its ministers have from the start meant for the best; that the fears they responded to – fears they feel personally as well as for the general population – are real, not confected; and that the measures they’ve put in place have seemed to them proportionate and necessary. Something close to panic has been running amongst our political class, just as it has amongst many of the rest of us, and Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Chris Whitty – with their cartload of crack-downs on ancient freedoms – have struggled to raise their eyes from the end of each week – let alone find time to imagine a future in which any of these controls become permanent.
Start, then, by allowing that they were doing their best. In a way, the rule-making and legislation that has rained down on us since March 2020 has startled its authors as much as it has surprised the rest of us by its scale. They never meant it to go this far for this long. Dominic Cummings’s reflections on Boris Johnson’s instincts make that clear.
Once, then, you concede the essential good-faith and public-spiritedness of ministers and their Whitehall servants, you can brush aside any argument about conspiracy, and concentrate on what really matters: the legacy of interference this leaves us with, and the temptations that will arise on all sides to entrench it indefinitely.
For politicians these will become very strong. Extraordinary new powers – powers they never came into politics to grab or exercise – have been thrust upon them by a palpable national emergency. They are getting used to them now. Some give every impression or beginning to enjoy wielding them. The people they govern, meanwhile, have (many of us, I fear) developed a variant of Stockholm Syndrome, almost liking our captivity. As the joke about the little girl in the ultra-progressive primary school runs (“Please, Miss, must we do as we please today?”) the State has begun to feel like a security blanket for many.
In these circumstances, with control now a habit among both controllers and controlled, it will take a new circumstance, a deus ex machina to shake off what has become habitual, the post-Covid status quo. Otherwise the habit will stick, momentum will kick in, and reasons not to reverse whole swaths of legislation and rule-making – or not yet – will start to insinuate themselves into legislators’ thinking.
The remedy must involve sunset legislation, of which we already have a great deal. When existing powers come up for renewal, legislators in both the Commons and the Lords must be ready to rebel. I never thought I would find myself writing this, but I’ve come to believe that the saviours of our post-Covid liberties may prove to be the Parliamentary Conservative Party. I’ve been surprised by how resilient the argument for individual responsibility has proved on the Tory backbenches, even while the wind of public opinion, scientific and medical opinion and ministerial and whips’ diktat, has been strongly against them.
Let’s face it, we are looking here at ideology: at doctrine if not dogma. Ideas still matter in politics. Personal freedom is an idea. It can survive the ice-age in which this pandemic has buried it, and – come the thaw – resurface. I believe it will. The PM will run into trouble with his parliamentary majority if he ignores it; and sooner than you may think.