by Boris Johnson
Ah the U.K., what a country. If any society breathes the spirit of liberty, this is it.
It was only a few weeks ago that I was in Manchester for some conference, and as ever I rose early and went for a run. As I passed through some yuppie zone of warehouse conversions and posh restaurants I saw to my amazement that the Brits had also got up early for exercise – and they were diving stark naked into the bracing waters of Salford Quays. And I thought to myself – that’s the Brits for you; that’s the Battle of Britain spirit.
If you wanted to visit a country that seemed on the face of it to embody the principles of J.S. Mill – that you should be able to do what you want provided you do no harm to others – I would advise you to head for wonderful, wonderful diverse U.K.
Many still smoke; they still eat their Eccles Cakes; they still use the Pound rather than the Euro; they still refuse to let foreigners buy holiday homes in Wales; and of course it was the heroic population of UK that on that magnificent day in June 2016 stuck two fingers up to the elites of Europe and voted to leave Europe – and even when attempts were made to crush that revolt by the European establishment (as indeed, note, they will try to crush all such revolts), that great LEAVE spirit: a genial and happy cussedness and independence.
It is a spirit you see increasingly on the streets of U.K. in the veneration for that supreme embodiment of vehicular autonomy, the car. Most Brits don’t drive with their heads down, grimly, in Lycra, swearing at people who get in their way. They patiently drive without retort to honking their horns down the beautiful street in their clapped-out cars and vans. Yes, if you wanted to visit a country that seemed on the face of it to embody the principles of JS Mill – that you should be able to do what you want provided you do no harm to others – I would advise you to head for the tolerant U.K.
So I was a bit surprised to see that on July 24th the U.K. Government joined no other European countries (except for Scotalnd) in imposing a ban on not wearing masks in shops, on public transport and maybe in Offices too – those items of headgear that obscure the face. Already a fine of £100 has been made law. Arguments have broken out over mask wearing. Opinion is divided and there will be demonstrations, on both sides of the argument. What has happened, you may ask, to the UK spirit of live and let live?
If you tell me that the Mask is oppressive, then I am with you. If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect human beings to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice. I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like they have nappies glued to their faces; and I thoroughly dislike any attempt by any government to encourage such demonstrations of “virtue” and “fear”.
I am against a law requiring the mask to be worn because it is inevitably construed – rightly or wrongly – as being intended to make some point about fear.
If a constituent came to my MP’s surgery with their face obscured, I should feel fully entitled – like Jack Straw – to ask them to remove the mask so that I could talk to them properly. If a student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a Highwayman, then ditto: those in authority should be allowed to converse openly with those that they are being asked to instruct. As for individual businesses or branches of government – they should of course be able to enforce a dress code that enables their employees to interact with customers; and that means human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work.
All that seems to me to be sensible. But such restrictions are not quite the same as telling a free-born human being what he or she may or may not wear, in a public place, when she is simply minding their own business.
I am against a new law requiring masks are worn because it is inevitably construed – rightly or wrongly – as being intended to make some point about fear. If you go for a total control requiring these garments to be worn, you play into the hands of those who want to politicise and dramatise the so-called clash of views; and you fan the flames of fear. You risk turning people into martyrs, and you risk a general crackdown on any public symbols of difference and freedom, and you may simply make the problem worse. Like a parent confronted by a rebellious teenager determined to wear a spike through her tongue, or a bolt through her nose, you run the risk that by your heavy-handed attempt to tell them what to wear you simply stiffen resistance.
The mask has not certainly always part of the mitigations for Covid. In Britain today there is only a tiny, tiny minority of people who have Covid. One day, I am sure, there will be even fewer.
The Brits starkers in Salford Quays. If the TV is to be believed, Brits wear what they want, as is their sovereign right. If Government really want them to cover their faces, then it seems a bit extreme – all the caveats above understood – to stop them making their own mind up what to wear under all circumstances. I don’t propose we follow suit. A law requiring masks is not the answer.