Quamquam animus meminisse horret – Although my mind shudders to remember. So says Aeneas in Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid when he embarks on telling Dido the terrible story of the fall of Troy.
And that’s exactly how I feel every time I think back to the dark days of 2020 and 2021. Not because of the virus but the dizzying and reckless speed with which this country plunged into authoritarianism.
The revelations of Hancockgate are all over the news and on this website. There’s no need for me to recount them here. Toby has already pointed out it was the usual political clown show. No doubt there are plenty more revelations to come.
One of the common threads filtering through now though is the disgust with which the government presided over the creation of a totalitarian state. Rod Liddle is one, with his ‘Unmasking the truth about Covid’ telling us:
It was the authoritarian mindset which demanded that countervailing opinions should not even be heard and that the people voicing them should be silenced as ‘Covid deniers’. This totalitarianism was quite explicit, such as when the BBC ran a debate on herd immunity and agreed with one of the participants – [Susan] Michie, natch – that it should not be ‘even-handed’. As she said: “I’d got prior agreement from R[adio] 4 about the framing of the item. I was assured that this would not be held as an even-handed debate.”
Like Mr. Liddle, I used to work for BBC Radio News. I was proud of that job several decades ago. Not anymore: I was assured this would not be held as an even-handed debate – and said with pride and pleasure!
It’s amazing how many are emerging from the woodwork to join in the frenzy of condemnation. Some, of course, were indeed already looking on in horror. Among them were writers for this site. On May 11th 2020 I published ‘Britain’s Covid Reich’, shaken with horror at what was happening. I take no pleasure from the knowledge now that I and other have finally been vindicated. I wish more than I could say that it had never happened.
What I tried to point out back then was the totalitarian states aren’t usually deliberately created. They’re the result of the shambles that characterise most political systems, but usually only when they’re confronted with a crisis. I’ve quoted the Gene Kranz character in the movie Apollo 13 when he says: “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” (see ‘Climbing out of the Lobster Pot’). But then he was dealing with a spacecraft for which there were manuals and hundreds of specialists and engineers who had only a few days to come up with a solution.
What NASA pulled off was a magnificent achievement, but Covid was a wholly different class of problem – and whatever passed for manuals were singularly lacking in straightforward solutions. Guesswork was the order of the day, however it was dressed up, and it made things worse.
Covid was a crisis alright. It’s disingenuous to suggest critics would have necessarily done a better job. There’s no way a democratic system can ensure that the people in power are the people who ought to be in power, or that the people voted into power will be the right people to deal with the circumstances that materialise in the months or years after the election.
I am therefore not a believer in conspiracies. No-one standing for election in 2019 was planning to throw together a totalitarian state at the first opportunity. Nor were they expecting a pandemic. And when it hit, all our Government and any other government could do was a) panic and b) trigger whatever cack-handed Schlieffen-style plan it had in the filing cabinet, and then c) make up some new ones. Except it was already too late.
Caught with their pants down, and in some cases that turned out to be literally true, the Government and its flotsam and jetsam gaggles of advisors dived into the fray, desperate to be seen to be doing something or anything, and created a new type of revolution: Britain would become a state dedicated to a war on Covid. There was a behind-the-scenes frenzy, some of it well intentioned, but in amongst the floundering and the guessing it was a gift to control freaks and those who spotted an opportunity to promote themselves and others who saw they could make a huge amount of money.
One makes the revolution to establish the dictatorship.George Orwell, 1984
To some extent the frenzy and panic was understandable to begin with. No-one knew what the hell was going on. What was unforgiveable was not considering the consequences of the extreme actions being instituted and the risk that they would make things worse, or not caring because the attractions of power were too great. Even if lockdowns and masks had worked, the economic and social consequences were going to be devastating. That was one thing even the Imperial College crystal ball gazers got right.
The result was almost inevitable. Remorselessly, and seemingly almost unconsciously to begin with, our government and many others resorted to terrorizing the public and imposing a litany of haphazard, often contradictory, and largely ineffectual rules. These masqueraded as a solution to the crisis. But of course, some or even many were largely, and could only ever have been, a charade and a mirage. That’s what totalitarian states are: a vast con.
Alongside came the suppression of debate, the deliberate crushing of any dissent. “So long as [the masses] are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.” (Orwell, 1984 again).
It ought to have been obvious within weeks and certainly months that an airborne virus had been lost control of from before anyone even realised it was there. But that didn’t matter. The rules had been invented, and new laws rushed through. A terrorized public had been led into believing the rules would save them.
And that’s where the second essential ingredient for an authoritarian state to develop of its own accord comes in: public compliance combined with active complicity. Like an accelerating snowball, the hysteria and the Government’s measures grew larger and larger and more out of control. The public egged the Government on, and the Government invested more and more of its effort and energy into the Covid laws.
As we now see, they deliberately and directly drew the police into enforcing those measures as part of the sleight of hand. They were helped by useful idiots in the BBC (with a few heroic exceptions) who didn’t waste a moment to join in the fun by featuring as much Covid death porn as possible and questioned nothing about the Government’s line.
Government and scientists alike delighted in the discovery that making most of the British public believe anything they were told, and meekly obeying, was the easiest thing in the world by copying China.
We soon reached the incredible situation where some police officers could forget the reason they originally were employed. Instead, they went out and about accosting and fining women harmlessly having a coffee out of doors or used drones to spot dogwalkers. This reached its horrifying and perverse climax in the case of Sarah Everard when a single deviant policeman was able to exploit the Covid laws and abduct and kill her, only for other police officers to follow that up by arresting and fining those who had the temerity to join in a public protest about her horrific fate (despite there being zero evidence to suggest open air transmission of Covid had any significant effect).
And plenty of freedom-loving Brits egged the police on, some jubilantly twitching their curtains and snitching on their neighbours. It would have been impossible without them, just as the Stasi’s job would have been impossible too.
The link with the virus had long since been lost. As Carl Heneghan has pointed out, the data behind the second lockdown was fatally flawed. It didn’t matter; his warnings were ignored. The government went ahead anyway. The rules and enforcing them had become an end in themselves without their protagonists or even many of the public apparently even realising. Hancock’s messages reveal a chaotic world of squabbling over policies, scoring points over one another, dodging spats with Nicola Sturgeon (whose name I’d like to remind you is an anagram of Contagion Rules), and bragging about their successes.
This tumble into totalitarianism wasn’t as deliberate as it might seem, though sometimes it looks as if it was. But it does seem to be an outcome that emerges far too easily in a modern state confronted with a crisis and armed with the tools of technology that make authoritarianism all too easy to enforce. And once a state discovers it has that sort of power it soon becomes difficult, even impossible, to relinquish, and even more difficult not to ramp up and push the envelope to see how far it can go.
One thing I got wrong was suggesting that Boris Johnson had the power and ability to see the danger and pull back from the brink. If he did, he did nothing or far too little. 2020 saw the Government drifting out of control, and things only getting worse for much of 2021. The crisis had moved onto a stage where it was constantly being reinvented in order to revive the terror, a convenient way of helping save face and justify the appalling way in which our society had been turned upside down.
In the end, we were saved by the crisis abating of its own accord. Omicron played a large part in finally undermining the mayhem, along with the news from South Africa. People like Susan Michie who had decided among other plans to save us from ourselves that we should wear masks forever, found their momentum fading away. And of course there was Sweden, whose far-sighted policies exposed an unpalatable truth to the UK Government and those of the devolved nations: that many of the measures, and certainly the laws, might very well have made no difference to the outcome.
Of course, no-one can prove it either way now. So much for science in such circumstances. As I have mentioned on this site before, “disappoint and opposition inflame the minds of men and attach them still more to their mistakes” (Alexander Hamilton 1774). The face-saving insistence that we are where we are now is only because of the measures taken, the warnings heeded, and insidious and brutal laws passed, will be a long-lived trope until the careers of those involved have long since faded into the past.
Some of the measures might have worked in some way but since many people were already isolating themselves, we’ll never be able to unravel true cause and effect. It’s even the same for the vaccines. It’s not long ago that many of us were being urged to get a fourth jab, but now the whole subject seems to have disappeared. The under-50s can’t even get a Covid jab unless they are especially vulnerable. In any individual case it’s impossible to untangle cause and effect. I know numerous people who have been jabbed several times but had Covid two, three or even more times. And I know plenty of people like myself who have had the same jabs and never had Covid before the jabs or since. And I’ve lost track of the claims made about the jabs that turned out not to be true, such as how it would stop you catching Covid, or passing it to someone else.
Either way, we have pulled back from the brink. But it was a close-run thing and we’re not out of the woods. In the summer of 2020 and during 2021 this country came closer to the end of everything it was supposed to stand for and all in the name of a floundering Government playing God and trying to pretend that with an arsenal of laws and an army of enforcers, aided and abetted by much of the media and many of the public, we could justify sacrificing everything dear to us on the altar of one evil spirit.
Few of us have not suffered in some way. To the Covid deaths we gaily added the destruction of education, the denial of core development of infants, the systematic exploitation of some workers for the benefit of those with the money and property to loaf around at home, the miserable closing months in the lives of elderly people denied contact with friends and families and sometimes even their spouses, imprisoned in their care home cells, and the fragmentation of families denied the most basic of human relationships. And all the while the Government partied when it suited, and its members jockeyed for position, while masquerading as saviours. We will be paying for lockdown for decades, and some of us for life.
That’s how totalitarian states come into being: a tumbling, ramshackle, panicked and self-serving government out of its depth, egged on by a terrorized population. And now we have the WhatsApp messages to illustrate the shambles as it unfolded in real time. It’s a lesson to every one of us. We all have it within us to be complicit in such disasters. But we also have it within us to be vigilant and realise that it takes a great deal of work, awareness, and education to hold the hell of authoritarianism at bay. For that we can be thankful for Hancockgate.
Facilis descensus Averno – Easy is the descent into Hell (Virgil 6.126)