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Coronavirus Bill: History tells us that governments do not often surrender new powers they have obtained

Temporary measures must not legitimise a permanent shift towards authoritarian state control
March 23, 2020

“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 medicine, but of course he did not have the assistance of Nye Bevan’s brilliant NHS which is resisting Covid-19. Elsewhere, HAL Fisher’s 1918 Education Act created a new comprehensive system of state secondary education. Wider attitudinal change was underway and there were votes for 8m women. The much extended scheme for unemployment insurance proved a mercy in the depression years.

That was the benevolent legacy. Conversely, new state powers for curbing free movement and free speech were used extensively as weapons against trade unions and radical dissidents more generally. The Emergency Powers Act of 1920 and successor schemes like the Supply and Transport Organisation became a powerful strike-breaking weapon, aided by the army. This was closely assisted by Basil Thomson’s police special branch to check the spread of allegedly seditious ideas. “Black Friday” among the miners and the 1926 general strike were countered in this way. Another weapon was censoring left-wing publications. This began with the attack on the anti-war Worker; published on Clydeside; it led to the deputy editor, the future Communist MP William Gallacher, being imprisoned for six months. Powers of suppression were zealously pursued by a far-right home secretary, Joynson-Hicks. Legislation could also be manipulated. The Public Order Act of 1936 was used as much against unemployed hunger marchers as against Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts in the East End, the supposed target.

In the second world war, Churchill’s all-party coalition displayed a less punitive approach. Conscientious objectors received more civilised treatment. A major contributor to this was Herbert Morrison as home secretary. He showed particular courage in releasing from prison the fascist leader, Mosley. The rule of law also played its valuable role, notably in the famous dissenting judgment by Lord Atkin of Aberdovey (once my neighbour) in the case of Liversidge v Anderson—“in times of war the laws are not silent.” Principles of natural justice were affirmed. On the other hand, rationing of supplies, foodstuffs and much else was accepted with stoicism by the civilian population. The heyday of post-war austerity under Stafford Cripps as chancellor from 1948 saw no political reaction against the Labour government. A policy which sustained full employment and “fair shares” through food subsidies appeared equitable.

In recent years, state controls have been used, and abused, primarily in connection with security and enemies of the people, real or imagined. But until the wider threat from Covid-19 there was no general battery of controls.

Could these lead to a permanent shift towards authoritarian forms of state direction and control? They could, of course, be merely short-term, given the success of medical directives. But governments do not often surrender new powers which they have invented. Could the Coronavirus Act be used elsewhere, notably over security and counter-terrorism, rather than in pursuit of solely medical objectives? This could be reinforced if the principle of food rationing was brought in. But the mood at first seemed relatively more libertarian (France was far more draconian).

Much, too, depends, on the responses of civil society, where health crises often bring out the worst in human behaviour. There is often a search for minority scapegoats. A civilised reaction could not be decreed by the government telling people to be kind to each other. One symbol of restored normality would surely be the courts functioning as usual again, the heirs of Lord Atkin as guardians of basic human rights. Once condemned as “enemies of the people,” they could be cherished allies in regaining a world we have lost.