Britain is treating Covid-19 with a dose of temporary authoritarianism—a crude medicine with unknowable side effectsby Rafael Behr / March 27, 2020 / Leave a comment
It is not normally a symptom of healthy democracy when the government demands that citizens stay confined in their homes and parliament rubber-stamps it into law, then disbands for weeks. But these are not normal times.
The extreme measures required to contain the spread of coronavirus require suspension of many habits of a free society, including the right to move around the country and assemble. Removed from the context of a deadly virus the political shift looks wildly authoritarian.
The lack of censorship indicates that something more consensual is going on. There is no need to repress dissenting voices because no one is siding with the disease. Even recalcitrant libertarians who pull at the leash of “social distancing” recognise the need for some restraint. The relative ease with which Britain has accepted the requirement that civil society be banished from public space expresses underlying confidence in some deep cultural inoculation against tyranny. There are historical grounds for that faith, but it easily shades into complacency. The UK is not going to slide into despotism in response to public health emergency, but there are many modes of liberty between the freedoms we enjoyed before coronavirus and the limitations now imposed to contain it. How can we be so sure, once the crisis has passed, that we will naturally revert to our starting point on that spectrum?
A truly authoritarian government would not have written automatic expiration dates into its draconian law. Boris Johnson has many character flaws but he has not given the impression of a man itching to use Covid-19 as the pretext for a vast executive power grab.
He looks more vulnerable to the opposite charge: negligence stemming from aversion to anything that smacks of intrusive government. There is no ideology coherent enough to be called “Johnsonism” but the prime minister’s messy creed borrows equally from Thatcherite suspicion of the “nanny state” and from a belief—more libertine than liberal—that people should be allowed to indulge themselves. Johnson went into this crisis with a predisposition not to close pubs. He also recognises that a capitalist economy relies on high turnover of individual freedoms expressed as private-sector transactions.
There will always be a section of the polemicist left that wants to accuse Tory leaders of fascism, but here we have an incidence…