As Britain was heading into lockdown on 23 March 2020, UK health secretary Matt Hancock was busy introducing the accompanying legislation in parliament. ‘To defeat [Covid-19]’, he said, ‘we are proposing extraordinary measures of a kind never seen before in peacetime’.
He was underselling them. In their repressiveness, their illiberalism and often their sheer arbitrariness, the ‘extraordinary measures’ the government was then about to impose on British society had never been seen before in wartime, either. They exceeded powers granted by the Defence of the Realm Act 1914. And they went beyond those of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939. These were draconian pieces of legislation, placing people and property at the service of the state. But they certainly didn’t authorise the de facto imprisonment of every single citizen in his or her home.
Because that is what Hancock’s ‘extraordinary measures’ amounted to: the quarantining of everybody, regardless of health. As Lord Justice Hickinbottom described it, the government’s response to Covid represented ‘possibly the most restrictive regime on the public life of persons and businesses ever’.
So, not only has the state assumed an unprecedented regulatory control over our lives since March last year — mechanisms it has used to do so have rendered it largely unaccountable. The result? An ever-expanding regulatory regime, consisting of often ill-thought-out and confusing rules, issued, as it so often seems, on a ministerial whim. As Lord Sumption puts it, ‘The sheer scale on which the government has sought to govern by decree, creating new criminal offences, sometimes several times a week on the mere say-so of ministers, is in constitutional terms truly breathtaking’.
The effect has been dystopian. Empowered by the government’s regulatory regime, the police have been busily treating once taken-for-granted freedoms as potentially criminal acts.
But the problems go deeper. The legal assault on liberty leads to and reinforces its cultural devaluation. What would have been thought an unacceptable incursion on our liberties before the imposition of the lockdown regime becomes all too acceptable during and after it. The government’s Policing and Crime Bill, currently making its way on to the statute books, is a case in point. It will make permanent the de facto restrictions on the right to protest established under lockdown regulations. In authoritarian conditions even the most draconian measures can appear sensible.
Perhaps most worrying is the extent to which our conception of freedom has been forcibly transformed under the regulatory regime of lockdown. It really has started to become Napoleonic. We are free when the state determines we are free. Civil liberties are being transformed into state permits. Freedom from the state is being transformed into the permission of the state. After all, what are ‘vaccine passports’ if not permission slips?
(DBx: I cannot imagine that this Covid tyranny in Britain would have been tolerated by the likes of Adam Smith, Burke, T.B. Macaulay, Harriet Martineau, Cobden, Gladstone, Acton, H. Spencer, A. Herbert, Dicey, Ralph Harris, or Arthur Seldon. I can, however and sadly, believe that J.S. Mill might have been duped into tolerating it.)
Covid-Derangement-Syndrome-induced tyranny is on the loose in Canada. And of course also in New Zealand – that lovely little island nation so lavishly praised for its government’s ‘rational’ response to Covid.
[Giorgio] Agamben reflects on the meaning of the new order and warns that: ‘Fear is a bad adviser, and I don’t believe that transforming the country into a plague-ridden land, where we all look at each other as potential sources of contagion, is really the solution.’ He is alive to the way that a kind of social alienation has become deeply embedded in the management of the epidemic, explaining that ‘because our neighbour has become a potential source of contagion, we have agreed to suspend our friendships and relationships’. He also warns that ‘social distancing… will be society’s new organising principle’. ‘I do not believe that a community based on “social distancing” is humanly and politically liveable’, he states.
I stand by what I wrote one year ago today.