Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Most of us like to think that we are pragmatic while our opponents are doctrinaire. It is, as behavioural psychologists have long known, an inescapable part of our nature. So it is not surprising that during the Covid-19 outbreak, as during any crisis, each side should accuse the other of being ideological.
Leftists complain that the government is putting “the economy” before “people” (as though the two things could somehow be disentangled). Rightists, for their part, suspect that their opponents are enjoying the lockdown, and the associated expansion of state power, a little too much.
Actually, if we do our best to set our prejudices aside, we can see that almost everyone has accepted the uniqueness of the situation. Most small-government types acknowledged the need for increases in state spending and emergency powers – though it is fair to say that they fret more than the general population about the endurance of these measures.
Socialists, for their part, have generally gone along with the scrapping of some regulations. Hardly anyone is arguing, for example, that, at a time when millions are losing their jobs, companies should be required to measure their gender pay gaps.
That said, our political opinions often reflect our personalities. We tend to differ in our attitudes depending on whether we are optimistic or pessimistic, risk-taking or cautious, solitary or social, trusting or cynical. And these character traits are themselves subject to environmental influence. A perceived external threat will generally make people more defensive, more inward-looking, more tribal, more authoritarian, more intolerant of dissent, more censorious.
All of which poses a challenge to small-government conservatives. Exactly as psychologists would have predicted, most people responded to the epidemic by demanding bans and prohibitions. Naturally, they did so in the belief that theirs was a logical and pragmatic response, while those who disagreed were blinkered ideologues.
The government’s initial response was in fact admirably Burkeian. The full force of law was used sparingly. Pubs and theatres were closed, but other businesses were left open. People were told to use their common sense, avoid unnecessary contacts and keep washing their hands. And you know what? It did the trick.
We can now see that it was during the pre-lockdown period that the rate of new infections started to plummet in the UK. If, as epidemiologists and ministers now accept, Covid-19 related deaths peaked on 8 April then, allowing for the lag in incubation and deterioration, the peak in the rate of infections came on or around 18 March – five days before the lockdown was announced.
Obviously, no one knew that at the time. Both ministers and the scientists who advise them were in the unenviable position of having to work with tiny scraps of information. Understandably, perhaps, they did what the public and the tabloids were demanding and ordered draconian restrictions. Now, even many self-identifying conservatives clamour for the clampdown to continue.
Have they simply turned to swim with the current? Has the panic changed the chemistry of their brains? Or were they always relaxed about an increase in state power? Whatever the explanation, those who continue to argue for personal autonomy and property rights find themselves suddenly in the minority.
I have been struck, over the past month, by the divergence between libertarians and what we might call “communitarian conservatives” – those public-spirited, amiable, often quietly religious Tories whose columns appear at Unherd and, indeed, sometimes on this site.
The position of most libertarians is clear enough: they fear that the original “flatten the curve” justification for the closures has expanded, they fret about the loss of freedom, they worry about the growing debt and they want the restrictions lifted.
That of most (not all) communitarians is more surprising. You’d think that the original Burkeian response would have been right up their street; but, when the moment came, they cheered for measures that owed less to the science than to a general feeling that the Government should be doing more.
Now we find ourselves trapped in a situation where the burden of proof has been reversed in a way that would have horrified Burke. Argue for, say, shops to reopen, and you will be told: “How can you be certain that it won’t cause the infection rate to rise?” But it shouldn’t be for defenders of the status quo ante to show that restrictions don’t work; it should be for exponents of unprecedented restrictions to show that they do.
Six weeks ago, most of Europe was in lockdown and only Sweden (and, I suppose, Belarus) were the outliers. Now, other countries are opening up. Children are returning to school in Denmark, Germany, Norway, Austria. Shops are reopening across the Continent.
Switzerland – not a country we associate with wanton recklessness – has ended its lockdown weeks earlier than planned, reopening shops, gyms and cafés, removing border restrictions, telling otherwise healthy over-65s that it is fine to go out.
Suddenly, it is boarded-up Britain that is the outlier. Other countries, following their own scientific advice, are beginning to trade and export again, taking business from their shuttered British rivals.
Conservatism expresses itself through trust, responsibility and common sense. It is not compatible with laying down prescriptive rules on which family members you may meet and which forms of exercise you are allowed. When we forget that, we really are in trouble.