Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
I hate everything about the lockdown. I hate the confiscation of liberty, and the ease with which it is surrendered. I hate the damage to children’s education. I hate the prying and the prissiness and the pettiness. I hate the way university students have missed out on what should be the best time of their lives. I hate the tone in which police officers address people going about their lawful business.
I hate the way the goalposts keep moving: flatten the curve; no – wait for a vaccine; no – keep the pressure off the NHS; no – stop new variants. I hate the cataclysmic impact on small businesses, and the indifference of large parts of the public. I hate the debt we are racking up. I hate the protectionism and the authoritarianism. I hate hearing words like “hoarder” and “profiteer” – words we used to associate with extremist ideologies. I hate the loneliness that I see weighing on my elderly neighbours. I hate the profusion of pettifogging laws.
But d’you know what I hate the most? I hate what it has revealed about us. It turns out that we quite like being bossed around – at least, a lot of us do. Given the excuse of a collective threat, we revel in crackdowns and prohibitions.
I am not talking about the contingent acceptance of some restrictions. Almost everyone can see that an infectious disease requires proportionate limitations on normal activity. Infecting other people is what economists call an “externality”, a cost borne by someone else.
No, I am talking about the equanimity, even the enthusiasm, with which some have taken to house arrest. “I loved lockdown”, declared a secret card returned to an enterprising London printer who is inviting people to send her their most intimate lockdown confidences on anonymous postcards. I reckon most of us have heard that sentiment, whispered furtively. Many of the printer’s postcards tell the same story: “a lot of people not wanting to unlock,” as she puts it.
King’s College London and Ipsos Mori found last week that 54 per cent of us will miss some aspects of the lockdown. Think about that for a moment. We’re not talking about things that we are free to do at any time. Obviously lots of us find staying at home more pleasant than commuting. Lots of us have enjoyed walks more than usual. Lots of us like seeing more of our children. But the essence of the lockdown is not that it allows us to rebalance our lives; it is that it mobilises the full force of the law to compel us.
We could always choose to forego a foreign holiday in return for working shorter hours. The idea that we need to be coerced into doing so – and have all our neighbours similarly coerced – is a terrifyingly illiberal one. So is the idea that we should be paid to stay at home – with money that someone or other is presumably supposed to find down the line.
I always knew that libertarianism was a minority creed. For most people, safety trumps freedom every time. Even so, it is distressing to see the near-universal demand for the smack of firm government. Take, to pluck an almost random example, the prohibition on leaving the country. Governments have every right to impose whatever conditions they want on people seeking to enter their territory, including quarantine. But leaving? Isn’t that for the receiving country to decide?
Yet that ban, like all the others, was cheered through with barely any debate. Politicians can see which way the wind is blowing: 93 per cent of people backed the first lockdown, 85 per cent the current one, and every easing of restrictions has been unpopular in the polls. There are honourable exceptions, but few MPs or commentators want to take what they know would be an utterly pointless stand. Even the PM, whose dislike of nannying has until now been his ruling principle, seems to have decided that there is no purpose in placing himself in the path of an authoritarian electorate.
This is not a column about the efficacy of lockdown measures. I happen to think that they are disproportionate. It has for some reason become fashionable to mock Sweden, but that country has suffered fewer excess deaths than most of Europe. Then again, there are good and sincere people who take a different view. The question of how much suffering we should inflict in exchange for a given number of lives is never going to have a simple answer.
No, this is a column about what ConservativeHome has called “the freedom gap” – the way in which a country that used to define itself as individualist, eccentric and undeferential now leads the world in its unhesitating acceptance of controls. An alien visitor, judging only from the texture of daily life, would assume that Britain in early 2021 was a far more repressive state than Russia or China.
The editor of this site recently speculated that the elevation of security over liberty might reflect the feminisation of politics. Jonathan Haidt would put it down to the vogue for “safetyism” – the idea that people should be at all costs be protected from unpleasant experiences rather than learning from (and being hardened through) them.
Let me proffer a gloomier explanation. Safetyism is a natural instinct. Throughout almost all human civilisation, people have accepted various forms of hierarchy and tyranny in the name of security. The liberal interlude through which we have lived is exceptional. We may be witnessing its end.