Liberal Britain is the Most Serious Casualty of the Pandemic

Fraser Nelson has been a somewhat fickle friend of sceptics. Broadly sceptical until the autumn, the Spectator editor and Telegraph columnist backed the third lockdown and the Spectator‘s output has been noticeably more pro-lockdown since, though with some welcome exceptions (such as Rod Liddle, who travelled the other way, and Lionel Shriver. And of course, Toby).

His column in today’s Telegraph, though, is a cracker, and more reminiscent of the Nelson of old.

Boris Johnson, he writes, is a man with regrets. He has “started to tell friends that he was let down by his own liberal instincts. That he hoped for too long that Britain could, like Sweden, fight the virus through consent rather than diktat – getting through this without abolishing basic freedoms. His fear at the time was irreversibility. If sacred principles were jettisoned in an emergency, would they ever be restored? Might he end up unleashing something he’d struggle to control?”

Fraser notes that Covid levels are now so low in Britain that the Prime Minister could have declared the emergency over already. Instead, we have the renewal of the Government’s emergency powers in the Coronavirus Act for another six months.

It’s no good looking to Labour for opposition. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is more keen on the new restrictions than the Tories (though it was good to see a few Labour MPs defying the party whip and voting against the extension yesterday, alongside the Lib Dems).

The Government won the vote easily. But in biosecurity Britain, who’s really in charge? Increasingly it seems the scientists, and then only those willing to parrot the Official Narrative. Even ones we thought were discredited, like Neil Ferguson, seem to retain their place at the table. Fraser writes:

Big announcements continue to come via people like Prof Neil Ferguson, who still seems to have a Rasputin-like hold over the Government. Earlier this week, he said he thought it may be unwise to book any foreign holidays this summer. This is big news, because what he thinks today tends to become Matt Hancock’s policy tomorrow. “We’re run by scientist groupthink,” says one minister. “But that won’t change until the polls change.”

Ah, the polls. Scourge of the sceptics’ cause, the rock on which all our carefully crafted arguments founder. Boris Johnson this week was heard speaking in disturbingly demagogical terms about public sentiment on lockdowns, as though people are doing anything other than reflecting back the fear instilled into them by a year of unremitting pro-lockdown propaganda orchestrated by the Government. He told MPs:

My impression is that there is a huge wisdom in the public’s feeling about this. Human beings instinctively recognise when something is dangerous and nasty to them. They can see, collectively, that Covid is a threat. They want us, as their Government – and me as the Prime Minister – to take all the actions I can to protect them.

These are words that should haunt all who love liberty and who cling desperately to the belief that we still live in a liberal state whose laws safeguard our basic freedoms from Government overreach.

Noting the announcement this week of the creation of a distinctly illiberal sounding “Health Security Agency”, Fraser comments:

Until recently, no Government would have thought it was expected to control a virus. The wildest of the pandemic plans did not involve lockdown. But Wuhan showed what public health figures could “get away with” as Prof Ferguson put it – which changed everything. The definition of what Government can “get away with” is being expanded week after week.

With the “fundamentals of a biosecurity state” now under construction, he says, “the old inalienable rights – freedom of assembly, of protest, of school education, to leave the country” have become “privileges to be removed or restored as ministers see fit”. One idea being floated in Whitehall, he says, is citizens sending their temperature in everyday using the NHS app. Good grief.

We are now in serious danger of becoming like Communist China, where citizens are given a colour code for their health status that determines how freely they can move. In January, Matt Hancock said: “We are not a papers-carrying country”. In that case, why is Michael Gove working on vaccine passports, and the Prime Minister saying we may need one to go to the pub or get a job?

We are facing the prospect of liberal Britain becoming the most serious casualty of the pandemic. The frightening truth is that, as Boris Johnson is all too aware, opinion polls show consistently high public support for vaccine passports, curfews, border closures, all of it. Perhaps this support, expressed to a telephone interviewer or on a website, is just lip service, and people’s true feelings or at least their personal behaviour are dissonant with that. If so, the Government clearly does not concur.

Thus we see what Fraser call perhaps the “biggest shift”, the one which explains why this is happening despite negligible infection levels and soaring vaccination rates.

Once Government would need to demonstrate – beyond reasonable doubt – that a threat is big enough to justify depriving people of their liberty. Now, the burden of proof has flipped. It’s argued that a new variant might escape the vaccine. Until this can be disproved, it seems, nobody leaves the country.

This is the “precautionary principle”, perhaps the most influential idea of our times. It transforms the relationship between the individual and the state. It means all kinds of costs can be incurred – and freedoms suspended – just in case. There need be no real plausibility test, no balance of risk. In this black-box democracy, decisions are taken without transparency, Parliament is not consulted and the Cabinet told to get in line.

Alarmingly, given the central role that science plays in justifying the new biosecurity state, “even those inside the magic circle of Government scientific advisers have been threatened with dismissal for questioning the pro-lockdown consensus”, Fraser says. Government stooges like Neil O’Brien are despatched to smear eminent academics like Carl Heneghan because they don’t buy into the Government’s lockdownism. Those invested in this catastrophic narrative are closing ranks and threatening those who think the evidence is pointing in the other direction with loss of position and earnings. This kind of enforced ideological monoculture is as fatal to good governance as it is to good science – bad ideas cannot be challenged and corrected before they do untold damage.

What happened, wonders Fraser, to the liberal Boris who was elected in December 2019? We need him back.

Worth reading in full.

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