Temporary measures must not legitimise a permanent shift towards authoritarian state controlby Kenneth O Morgan / March 23, 2020 / Leave a comment
“Probably the most drastic powers that have ever been put to the Commons,” a Conservative leader declared. Not Boris Johnson announcing in 2020 that we were all on a war footing, however, but Bonar Law in March 1915 when we really were at war. He was broadly endorsing the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) which had swept through parliament nem. con. on 8th August 1914, four days into the Great War. The Act later went through six amended versions, imposing unprecedented controls on the ordinary citizen. No more ringing of church bells, buying binoculars or whistling in the streets. Not exactly the extreme control of personal behaviour in fighting Covid-19, especially in several European states, but still oppressive enough.
As in 2020, particular attention was paid to the demon drink, in a country in which pubs remained open almost all day, seriously affecting the efficiency of the workers. Alcohol was always a target. From March 1915, pubs would open for a mere five and a half hours a day, the No Treating Order stopped you buying other people drinks, the content of the working man’s beer was much diluted, its price was increased. Music-hall songs deplored the quality of “Lloyd George’s Be-e-er,” a special target of the Welsh Baptist chancellor of the exchequer. DORA became a hated public symbol of enforced puritanism, personalised in Sidney Strube cartoons as a cross, frumpish woman with over-long skirts. The music hall duo of “Flotsam and Jetsam” sang rousingly “We hate Dora.”
Many even more stringent state controls followed, including, for the first time, the rationing of food, along with military conscription. Hitherto, the impact of the state on individual lives was relatively limited, operating mostly at the local level. But DORA and its associated controls had two broad outcomes, one positive, the other ominous. Which option will prevail after coronavirus is overcome remains to be seen.
Wartime controls and the greater role of the state did encourage a mini-revival of the pre-war New Liberalism of social reform. Christopher Addison’s 1919 Housing Act produced 210,000 new state-financed homes built by local authorities. Since he became the first minister of Health, it was he who coped with the alarming flu epidemic of 1919. Unlike any of Johnson’s cabinet, Addison was a fine professor of…