The lamp of liberty in an age of crisis

We must overcome our fear of disease now, notwithstanding the medical uncertainties, and take a cold hard look at what the collective realisation of our fears is doing to our most sublime status as a society of free men and women. Once we have accomplished that, and reclaimed from the hysteria our most essential liberties of travel, being with family and friends, and moving about as we please, we must then face down the fear engendered by the economic consequences of the abyss upon whose edge we currently teeter.

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By Matthew Parish

The British jurist Jonathan Sumption recently observed that history teaches us, that where a society suffers a loss of liberty, they do so not because a dictatorship takes it away from them; but by reason that they voluntarily abdicate that liberty to persons who subsequently become dictators in consequence of the people’s fear of some imagined overwhelming menace that turns out subsequently not to be nearly so dangerous as is imagined.

Liberty’s lamp is being quenched. The first casualty we have seen is the media. There is only one news story now in the contemporary media: the menace of the Coronavirus. Every media channel trumpets this monologue in unison, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. No space is found for the contrary narrative: particularly concerning, because there is a substantially stronger case that Coronavirus is not an apocalyptic menace, than that it is.

It is a menace, to be sure: but those advocating the shutdown of society – which is what we have now – must confidently be able to assert that we are facing apocalyptic conditions meriting the end of society as we know it. That is because if our society is shuttered for a significant period, it will not be the same again once things are over. I have already argued that there is insufficient scientific evidence to justify drawing an apocalyptic conclusion. Therefore we are engaged in a collective delusion, acting as a society on an apocalyptic assumption when there are no grounds for it.

It is easy to say that the media is responsible for this; as though there is a conscious collective conspiracy to deceive. This may reassure us in the sense that we find somebody to blame. But it is precisely Sumption’s point that these mass infringements upon liberty are not the product of some external force. They are the result of public demand, and derive from our own fears. The public demands to be locked down, and that is what they shall have. The public is so afraid of the Coronavirus that that they want to read perpetual Coronavirus narratives in the media that confirm and amplify their fears.

The reason no other news is being reported in the media is not because there is no other news. War and conflict does not suddenly cease worldwide as a result of a viral infection. If it did, then the Coronavirus would have a great deal to commend it. Rather nobody is interested in those wars and conflicts when they fear for their own lives. They want to read about the perceived mortal danger perpetually on their minds, not the mortal dangers of others in far-off conflicts. The people do not appreciate that in asking this of their media. they are undermining the principal plank of their own liberty: a free and diverse press in which contrary points of view are freely aired.

The second casualty of the expungement of the flame of liberty is our relationship with the Police. Faced with guidance from the government posing as mandatory rules (the Prime Minister appears on the television and says “you must” do this, when that is simply a false statement of the law), and vague and unenforceable legislation saying something different from the guidance, the Police in the United Kingdom have taken to enforcing lockdown (keeping as many citizens as possible in their houses) by use of a range of unusual methods. One has been publicly shaming people they think are acting irresponsibly. The Police have been videoing, photographing and/or naming people they think have been outdoors in circumstances that may exacerbate Coronavirus infection rates.

The Police have also been intimidating people, stopping cars and pedestrians and interrogating them as to why they are outside, issuing instructions and reprimands to them. In addition they have been arresting people who should not have been arrested; and, shamefully, the magistrates’ courts have then been imprisoning some of those people. A person who spits at the Police, saying they want to infect them with Coronavirus, is reprehensible; irresponsible; possibly drunk; and a great many things more. But they should not be arrested for assault and sentenced to twelve weeks or six months in prison, which is what has happened in a handful of cases. While Coronavirus is extremely infectious, it is not at all dangerous to the vast majority of the population. By arresting people who spit at them, and then securing substantial prison terms for them, the Police are issuing public pronouncements that they have been threatened or assaulted with something deadly when this is not in fact the case. There is not yet any evidence that Coronavirus causes more deaths than influenza. The reason there is no such evidence is that mass testings have not yet been carried out: see my prior article. There is a fear that Coronavirus is very dangerous; but it is not backed up by evidence. It is an affront to justice if the causing of unjustified fear of harm is treated by the institutions of criminal law in equivalence with genuine acts of physical violence. If this happens, it means that fear has overtaken sanity and caution.

In a society governed by rule of law, the Police do not have unrestrained licence to enforce the moral dictates of government. The Police, who have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence against the general population, must in a law-abiding democracy conform to the most stringent of rules in everything they do as the public face of governmental violence. Their role is not to cast moral aspersions. Their role is not to enforce at whim government policy, whether it be motivated by panic or otherwise. Their job is to prevent the commission of crime as defined on the statute book and enacted by Parliament, using their powers of pursuit, arrest and detention only where they have adequate cause to believe crimes are being committed.

The Coronavirus Regulations 2020, enacted by Parliament in a hurry just before it was prorogued amidst the panicked March 2020 Coronavirus lockdown, place unprecedented restrictions upon the liberties of British citizens in recent times. Nevertheless they are drafted poorly. The describe an unbounded list of reasonable excuses for people to be out of doors, which inevitably require the Police to use discretion. Their discretion has consisted in acts so egregious as randomly stopping cars and interrogating people as to where they are going. Never have British people lived under such constraints upon their basic freedoms. For limitations upon where a British citizen may travel in his own realm are grievous constraints indeed. From this it is a short step to the Police importing their own prejudices into their discretion in who to stop and who not to stop, as we have seen with racial profiling scandals amidst the phenomenon of stop-and-search in the past.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the government bureaucracy has defined the Police as “key workers” – a select group of mostly public sector employees that are entitled to go outside, keep their jobs, continue to be paid and be honoured for their commitment, while the rest of us are compelled to sit at home, idle, only with promises of government bailout funds. Most of those funds are to be administered via the banks through way of government guarantees to private loans, a form of off-balance sheet lending about which the banks are rightly cautious. The net result is that for all the grandstanding political promises by government ministers to make up lost earnings and wages, the future is profoundly uncertain for most Britons stuck at home without a workplace to go to. Moreover every crisis loan ultimately falls to be paid back, on pain of a home’s foreclosure. This the British people know in their hearts. Where the fear of disease now stalks, the dread of penury may soon subsume.

Lockdown entails massive reductions in the most prevalent sorts of crime. Drunks cannot go brawling, because there are no bars. Homes cannot be burgled, because everyone is at home. Robbers cannot rob, because there is no-one on the streets. Hence during the lockdown there are more Police, earning overtime and in increased numbers as other admired key workers, whereas there is far less of the regular grind of their ordinary daily grind with which to occupy themselves. The net result is to find the Police standard on the corners of major road junctions, scouring  the streets for passers-by for the slightest indications of nonconformity to the new repressive social order. They are joined by groups of private vigilantes wearing pseudo-security uniforms, typically standing outside open shops or other real estate assets, in theory to deter non-existent assailants but in practice to bark officious orders enforcing social distancing rules at people who know all the rules anyway because they are being fed an ad nauseam daily media diet of Coronavirus obligations.

Our magnificent cities and lively historical towns of this proud and beautiful nation have been stripped apart by the forcible removal of people from the streets under the pretext of emergency health measures the justifiability of which remains outstanding. Vagrants and the indigent now roam the donut centres of our once glorious metropolises, the wealthy having retreated to their homes. For social isolation discriminates against the poor, because the poor have less space in their homes than the wealthy and therefore are less able to survive the rigours of solitary confinement imposed by a Parliament on its way out and by a government scared of a multitude of statistical models of questionable value and urged on by the precedent of authoritarian regimes and the heard mentality of Europe acting as a multi-headed hydra, each trying to out-do the other. Europe is left without central leadership or good ideas.

To strip our cities into lead planks, as if crudely carved out of their populations by clumsy welders who do not pause to ask about the strength of the instruments they employ, risks not just economic self-destruction but irreversible cultural isolation. When all this is gone, and we have become habituated to our solitary video games, we may have forgotten the merits of communal living in this densely populated country. For an Englishman’s liberty is a tool to suffer the presence of different people all about us, as one of the most densely populated, yet most culturally varied, countries in the world. As we forego our liberty in the face of an inchoate threat, we may lose the skill and tolerance to live together in the future.

The next casualty in our current struggle is parliamentary democracy. The Coronavirus Regulations 2020, inexpertly drafted and without a credible judicial mechanism to test their boundaries, are but one example. Parliament has been disbanded. The role of Parliament is to scrutinise the actions of the Executive, which at the very least in a time of crisis such as this are open to serious question. The government radiates and augur of panic, as ministers fall into self-isolation as they are tested positive for the virus using tests the rest of us cannot buy for any sum. Given the massive additional resources being deployed into the National Health Service, already the largest bureaucracy in Europe, one may be forgiven for wondering that our current de facto Prime Minister is its Chief Executive.

The Prime Minister is sick, but his abdication of power, whether temporary or permanent, is something In which Parliament ought to have a say. Our leaders hold office subject to the confidence of a vote of MP’s and their party machines, all of which structures seem now to have faded away amidst a sense that nobody is in control. With debts uncollectable, courts non-functional, prisoners being contemplated for mass release, the impoverishment of the private sector, employees laid off in the dreamy hope of government subsidies, and the unblinking aggrandisement of public sector institutions when ordinarily every democratic lever ought to be used to safeguard their overreaching, there is an increasing and emerging sense that society is breaking down. Reorientating the British economy into a wartime command-based military megalith strained our social and economic tensions to the core. But nothing challenged our essential liberties quite so much as today.

All these encroachments upon the quintessential British political values of liberty and rule of law, as bulwarks of our compromising and tolerant way of life, are under threat at this time. Edmund Burke would be appalled. Yet as Sumption observes, we are depriving ourselves of these values by giving into fears we do not understand. The streets of England reek of fear of the unknown: now the unknown of disease, but soon it will be the unknown of impoverishment. Yet we should not fear things we do not know will come to pass, because life is full of such fears and the human spirit shows best its strength in standing tall in the face of them.

Franklin D. Roosevelt observed that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We must overcome our fear of disease now, notwithstanding the medical uncertainties, and take a cold hard look at what the collective realisation of our fears is doing to our most sublime status as a society of free men and women. Once we have accomplished that, and reclaimed from the hysteria our most essential liberties of travel, being with family and friends, and moving about as we please, we must then face down the fear engendered by the economic consequences of the abyss upon whose edge we currently teeter. We must re-find our commitments to liberty and the rule of law as the cornerstones of our entrepreneurial, outward society, and rebuild our economic strength once again.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer and scholar of international relations based in Geneva. He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Leicester; was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum; and has been named as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is the author of several books and over three hundred articles.



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