The country that gave the world the Magna Carta has reacted to the pandemic by allowing centuries of hard-earned personal and financial freedoms to be stripped away in the name of safety.
We Brits like to think of ourselves as a freedom-loving people. Two world wars, a 50-year Cold War, and interventions in the Middle East against totalitarian regimes, were all conducted in the name of liberty.
The myriad of nations once in our empire are now some of the freest countries in the world. The US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, even the planet’s largest democracy, India, were all born out of what is often thought of as a distinctly British attitude to freedom. The Magna Carta, John Lock, John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith all emerged from this small island off the coast of mainland Europe, and we should damn well be proud of that.
However, the coronavirus outbreak seems to have shown that the UK may well have exported its last drop of that sort of spirit. After initially resisting the continental response of lockdown to stop the spread of the virus, the British people have embraced their new restrictions in frighteningly supine and lamb-like fashion. The eagerness of freeborn Brits to acquiesce to the greatest suspension of their liberties has been breathtakingly sad to witness.
It was once said that an Englishman’s home is his castle. Well, that may once have been true, but recent months have turned that Englishman into Edward V, and that castle into the Tower of London prison. We have willingly and almost gleefully accepted our effective house arrest with barely a whimper of dissent. Daddy government told us to go to our room and we raced up the stairs as fast as our feet could carry us.
There has been no opposition from any political party, big or small, to the lockdown imposed on Britain. Police are now stopping people who dare to leave their homes, questioning them and handing out fines if they don’t have a good enough reason. And there’s barely a murmur about the police state we find ourselves in.
Sunbathing in a park is now looked upon as a reckless and criminal act, and even if the police don’t move you along, self-appointed Twitter commissars will photograph you and brand you a ‘Covidiot’.
Then there is the bizarre British trait of deifying the National Health Service. It is not an exaggeration to say that the NHS is the closest thing Britain has to a national religion. This was the case before the Covid-19 outbreak, but the pandemic has cemented the organisation as almost the sole object of universal veneration in the country.
Every Thursday at 8pm, people dutifully line the streets of towns and cities to applaud “our NHS.”Every worker pays a tithe to it in the form of National Insurance, and anyone who even remotely criticises it is immediately excoriated for blasphemy. We are even sacrificing our economy on the altar of this socialistic health care delivery system, as instructed to by the new Orwellian mantra of the nation: “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”
Lauding healthcare workers is obviously something we should do, particularly in a time such as this, but instead, Britain is praising the antiquated, inefficient system in which they work, in a way that has not been replicated in any other country. This may seem pedantic, but it is an important difference; the NHS is an arm of the state, and no part of a government in a proper democracy should be immune to criticism or adored with such blind faith.
Our mainstream media has been the worst offender of all. With the exception of a smattering of brave commentators, such as Peter Hitchens and Toby Young, news outlets have pleaded for ever stricter controls on our freedoms. Rather than question the sense of the government engaging in the worst act of economic self-harm in history, commentators – best exemplified by that loudmouth Piers Morgan – screech at government ministers to do more, restrict us more, spend more, because “people are dying,” as if this is not an unavoidable a fact of life, while the weekly death totals are no higher than they have been before.
This even extends to their coverage of other countries. The sneering faux-bafflement with which Sky News and the BBC et al have covered the protests against the lockdown in the US has been repugnant.
In various states across America, people have taken to the streets to demonstrate against what they legitimately see as enormous government overreach, and for the restoration of liberties.
It may be easy to sneer at these people with their ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ flags, their guns and their pick-up trucks, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point. They want to get back to their jobs and their lives, while over on our side of the pond we are all too happy to placidly accept being furloughed from our jobs on the largesse of the state because “the science is settled” on Covid-19.
But it isn’t, and the people questioning that aren’t conspiracy theorists vandalising 5G masts. Scientists are divided as to whether or not lockdown is having any real impact at all. One study from the University of Oxford suggested that up to half the population may have already had the disease. When Sweden emerges from its methods, without having totally wrecked its economy and its businesses, how will our politicians justify their over-the-top reactions? The patient may be dead, but the operation was a complete success?
It is not just the notoriously freedom-loving Americans who have been stirred up into protests against lockdowns. Brazil, Russia, France and even Germany have seen unrest ordemonstrations against the draconian social distancing measures brought in. But our docile compliance has even surprised the government’s own scientists who have said that they had “seen even larger reductions in normal behaviour” than they “could have hoped for.”
While mass public unrest would obviously be counterproductive it is alarming at how willingly the British have accepted these new restrictions, and public support for them shows no sign of waning. According to recent opinion polls, just six percent of Britons think the current restrictions are “too severe,” while 44 percent believe they have not gone far enough.
Perhaps most surprisingly, support for the measures is strongest among those who feel “very strongly English,” according to research by Bristol University. This is a damning indictment on the notion of the once proud tradition of English liberty and self-reliance.
It is also a particular blow to those who, like me, supported Brexit in pursuit of less government. Far from sticking two fingers up at the establishment, it appears a great many of those who voted to leave are all too happy to let the government crack the whip as long as it’s Westminster that wields it, not Brussels.
For all our national mythology of being a devil-may-care nation of risk-takers who have resisted authoritarianism for centuries, Covid-19 has so far shown us to be an easily cowed people who value safety above all else.
Michael Gove once famously said that Britain had “had enough of experts,” but alas, we have turned our nation over to them and allowed them greater control of our lives than they have ever had before. Shame on us.