Once again our nation has been thrown into a period of state-sanctioned self-imprisonment with the government’s announcement of a second lockdown. Justification for this imposition on personal liberty, erosion of constitutional safeguards, permission for intense police and state sanctions, economic destruction of once thriving businesses, separation of families, attacks religious faith and freedom, establishment of a culture of fear and creation of a future health crisis of everything from mental illness to cancer, come from the pronouncements of a scientific and medical hierarchy who warn of Armageddon days ahead if we don’t lock ourselves down.
For once, to say we are in crisis is an understatement. For this is a crisis that goes to the soul of Britain and its historical battle between liberty and control. It is a crisis that pits those who believe in the individuals right to live without excessive state interference against those who believe in the state control of individuals. It is a battle between Socratic and platonic philosophies, libertarian and communist ideologies, people or big government – and it’s one that will establish the trend for future political and social governance.
In the time of another crisis that pitted state against the people one that had led to a civil war, Lieutenant-Colonel John Lilburne wrote about the government:
“Those who mean the best are many times misled so far to the prejudice of those that trust them as to leave them in a condition nearest to bondage when they have thought they had brought them into a way of freedom.”
It is a clear statement of truth and despair about our leaders. Some of those politicians are believed in and trusted but other forces cause them to prejudice and mislead those that trusted them – and in so doing place them in bondage. This cry for freedom could be levelled at Boris and those Conservatives that many in Britain have trusted to implement Brexit, create a new freer Britain, and protect the constitutional and cultural soul of Britain.
But are they being misled and if so by whom? Are they dipping their toes into the dangerous waters of authoritarians and therefore breaking with their own personal values? Or are they being sensible and simply responding in the only way a responsible government should respond?
Rising levels of Covid-19 infections the say. Increasing number of Covid related deaths we are told. An NHS that cannot cope, despite the billions pumped into it and the excess capacity caused by a huge fall in treatment of other sickness and disease throughout the system. Furthermore, look at the rest of Europe: they are in lockdown. We must follow.
For all the claims they make, this default response to lock us down isn’t actually a response of positivity – it is driven by political fear. No major Western political leader wants to be seen as the outlier, the one that stood aside from the rest. ‘If I allowed freedom to reign and it led to more deaths, I would be castigated in history’, they think. Therefore, is it any surprise that lockdown of Europe has happened at roughly the same time? These European leaders can now claim they acted exactly the same and so cannot be blamed.
However, the European response is to be expected. They have a political culture that is ready to impose restrictions on freedom more readily than Britain. Though that is not to say that Britain doesn’t have it authoritarian tendencies: following the Civil War and Puritan crisis Lilburne lamented came the medical crisis of ‘Mother’s Ruin’.
England, and particularly London, was in the grip of a gin crisis between 1720 and 1757. Gin consumption had reached levels of six gallons per person by 1740s, 6,000 houses in London openly sold it, child mortality under 5 had reached 75%, and fertility levels had fallen dramatically. Crime, poverty and death rates soared as more people died than were baptised. Daniel Defoe warned “in less than an age we may expect a fine Spindle-shank’d Generation”.
With this crisis upon them, and without the modern methods of television and internet, the Government decided to act heavily by enacting a series of Gin Laws that restricted sale, consumption and production. In doing so they established a chain of informers, imprisonment, poor houses, and intimidation.
The response of the public to this imposition was robust. The near complete prohibition of gin led to underground production. The imposition of informers led to an increase in attacks on them including deaths. Corruption rose as insiders benefitted financially from Government schemes to manage the outbreak, and the Exchequer’s revenue fell dramatically as the cost of prohibition outweighed the damage previously being done. People openly challenged the government and the law, including innovators like Captain Bradstreet who got around the law with a kind of vending machine nicknamed the Puss and Mew, a cat which dispensed gin through its paw.
The people had enough by 1743, and rose up in the famous Gin Riots. Eventually the government, who had been pressed into draconian anti civil libertarian action by a liberal middle class that used medical experts and the belief that they knew best, decided to permit the sale of gin but with taxation of distillers. Banning failed , and a more freedom orientated approach won the day in this old public health ‘crisis’.
The response of the public today is different. There are no riots, and instead there is compliance and fear. There has been encouragement to inform on your neighbours, and in the first lockdown some police famously acted robustly – almost as though they were enjoying their new enforcement powers. Councils have introduced fining systems, and the Exchequer is spending money like it’s going out of fashion, with our national debt for the first time exceeding 2 trillion pounds and over 100% of GDP.
The clamour from the medical and scientific experts for more lockdowns continues, but none of them will ever suffer the economic distress faced by so many people now. These state employees are comforted by a salary and pensions that simply won’t disappear or reduce – and they are part of a subsidised class of state employees that are having a great Covid as they spend less, save more and don’t actually have to attend their offices for work. It is no surprise that just like the upper middle classes of the 1700s, they clamour for more lockdowns.
But like those who started underground gin bars, some in the British public love their freedoms and are not afraid to challenge the thinking of government. There have been marches by those opposing lockdowns, a legal challenge against lockdowns by businessman Simon Dolan, and some doctors and medical experts have challenged the government’s advice in their own Great Barrington Declaration. The response by the authorities is, of course, the usual claims of cranks and fanatics – and social media companies have even gone so far as banning and restricting discussion of alternatives to the main scientific mantra.
Challenging authority and the stats quo is one of the most important definitions of what it means to be British. It is what causes the great changes in our society, and has led to all the great freedoms we have had until recently – freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, speech, love, life.
The very fact that all of this is now being restricted should scare us more than a virus. That there are people willing to step up and challenge the government and their advisors should be welcomed and exulted. Because whether it is a Civil War, a Gin War or a pandemic, history has shown that freedom – to challenge, to innovate, and to decide for ourselves – will always come up with a better response to the crisis of the day. The question now is whether those in government who mean the best will learn to trust us, take us out of bondage, and return us to the way of freedom.