Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
At some point in every child’s life comes the bleak realisation that their parents are not infallible. That they’re muddling through like everyone else, have bad habits and never get everything right, however hard they try. Perhaps they hold irrational prejudices or equivocate on who you should go out with, what you should eat, what subjects you should study.
And in as much as children think about government competence, they likely assume that policymakers know what’s best for them. That a benign state has their best interests at heart.
But at some point, it will dawn that policymakers are, in fact, humans. Flawed like the rest of us, and capable of making mistakes – some minor, some catastrophic, and some poorly-intentioned. An inability to accept or understand this fundamental truth was, in part, to blame for the failed socialist experiments throughout the twentieth century.
Yet as a nation we nonetheless collectively endorse the Government’s “we know best” attitude – be it with reference to our lifestyle choices, the economy, or ministers’ attempts to regulate our lives from what they deem to be ‘harmful’.
Granted, at times of national crisis, there is justification for government intervention in our lives that would be deemed excessive in normal times. While I would argue that very few of the restrictions that we’ve lived under over the past year or so are defensible (surely the state should never command the right to dictate who and when we can hug, for example), there is a broad consensus that protecting the public from a deadly virus justifies a level of government intervention we would usually reject.
However, even as the risk of the virus abates – with the Government on track to offer a first dose to all adults by the end of July, and the Indian variant showing no signs of being resistant to the vaccine – the rhetoric from ministers still implies that we all remain in peril.
We should be suspicious of this: fear is undoubtedly being mobilised to increase uptake in the vaccine, while ministers are reportedly considering local lockdowns once again to limit the spread of the variant. And it’s working; polling shows that only half of us will feel comfortable hugging despite the Government easing restrictions.
Just as we’ve seen ministers continue to call for the utmost caution as lockdown measures ease, it’s clear that this Government sees its purpose as protecting us from anything that could possibly cause us ‘harm’, with its increasingly paternalistic streak encroaching into nearly every area of our lives.
Take the Online Safety Bill which was published last week, and made a notable appearance in last week’s Queen’s Speech. The stated aim of the legislation is to “put an end to harmful practices” on the internet – a suspiciously large remit and one, which, as Victoria Hewson points out in a recent briefing paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs, will undoubtedly lead to a curtailment of free speech.
While it is glaringly obvious that the internet contains sordid material, from violent porn to Islamist and far-right extremist content, the Bill goes far beyond seeking to stamp out illegal content. It will seek to extend a “duty of care” to social media firms, which, while it may sound to some like a positive step, includes a duty to remove “lawful but still harmful” content, which includes “misinformation” – a notoriously nebulous and undoubtedly subjective term.
So, when it comes to the internet, ministers believe that censoring is justified to prevent harm. However, the Government is clearly conflicted over the matter of free speech. On the one hand, we have the Education Secretary seeking to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on university campuses through the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill; on the other, in seeking to ban the abhorrent practice of gay conversion therapy, it may well end up curtailing legitimate forms of therapy for those struggling with gender dysphoria.
Much like a parent intent on disciplining their naughty child, this Government’s preferred policy tool seems to be prohibition. It had been thought that the Government had decided against bringing in an ill-considered ban on so-called ‘junk food’ advertising on TV and online – but no, the proposed legislation reared its ugly head once again in the Queen’s Speech.
Not only is there no evidence to suggest this will have any impact on the nation’s collective waistline, but it is also fundamentally illiberal, severely curtailing businesses’ freedom to communicate with their customers and threatening broadcasters’ revenue.
The trend towards paternalism is concerning and, even more so, the level to which the public seem to be acquiescing with it. Even before Covid hit, the Government was encroaching in ever more areas of our life; the pandemic has only accelerated this trend.