Did you watch the Winter Olympics? If you did, you were probably struck, as I was, by its strange resemblance to the twilight zone of 2020: mostly empty stadia; deserted streets; everybody wearing masks; the theatre of Covid restrictions on vivid display. It was like being forced to look backwards on a past that one has long ago left behind. Apart from our December flirtation with madness, everyday life has been more or less normal apart from the odd mask here or there in the U.K. for well over six months. As of this week, we are, essentially, free – the real free, the old free. Beijing, by contrast, looked as though it was held in aspic.
Folk wisdom has it that China did ‘well’ in the pandemic, while Britain did ‘badly’. The narrative that set in, very quickly, in the first months of 2020 was that the Chinese had identified a dangerous virus and immediately locked down ‘hard and early’ to stop the spread. We, meanwhile, lacking either the will or competence to do likewise, had ‘dithered and delayed’, with the result being many thousands of avoidable deaths. However, even if one ever believed that narrative (the credulity with which Western journalists reported news from China about lockdowns in early 2020 is something I still find difficult to fathom), it is surely long overdue for revision. China in February 2022 appears to resemble a fully-fledged biosecurity state; it is hard to imagine it ever returning to the pre-2020 ‘normal’. We, on the other hand, in our characteristically bumbling sort of a way, have navigated the stormy seas of the past two years to something like calm waters. Lockdown sceptics will argue that a Rubicon was crossed in 2020 when the state criminalised conduct over which it had no rightful purview, and I would agree: the lockdown of March 2020 was probably the stupidest and most damaging thing a British government has ever done during peacetime. But one has to acknowledge that our social fabric has largely remained intact, in a way it has not elsewhere. We no longer wear masks and never required our pre-adolescent children to; we do not have vaccine passports or vaccine mandates despite brief dalliances with both; we need never take a godforsaken lateral flow test ever again. Life is not exactly as it was in 2019. But it almost is.
The asinine comparisons of the numbers of infections and deaths in different countries – all with different climates, cultures, population densities, age distributions, methods of gathering statistics, and so on – during the Covid era, as though we’re all in some Premier League of pandemic performance, has been one of the more idiotic characteristics of the period. But we can at least compare how well our political and social institutions have withstood the shock of the emergence of the virus and the panic that followed. And across that metric, it must be said that Britain has come out better than most of the rest of the developed world. In much of mainland Europe, one must now exhibit a vaccine passport of some kind to do the most basic things – to go shopping, eat at a restaurant, watch a film at the cinema. In the rest of the Anglosphere, the relationship of trust between governor and governed has almost totally broken down over the introduction of mandatory vaccinations. Blue state America is eating itself alive over the issue of relaxing compulsory mask-wearing for children. My Japanese relatives, like all of their compatriots, still wear a mask from the moment they leave the house to the moment they return home – even outside, even when alone. Compared with all of this madness, Britain can be said have arrived at a rather sensible position – and, indeed, to have been surprisingly wisely governed.
I use that word advisedly. I don’t believe for a moment that Boris Johnson or any other individual politician or government adviser can be described as ‘wise’. But there has been revealed to be an underlying core of wisdom at the heart of British socio-political life over the past two years – a strange sort of good sense that I can attribute to nothing other than a kind of alchemy between our political system, our newspapers, and what I can only call our national character.
First, our political system. It is hardly a novel observation that the Conservative Party, whether you like it or not, is of vital importance to our constitutional arrangements, because it is always present to provide political representation for sensible, right-wing views in Parliament. The imposition of the first lockdown was genuinely almost unanimous. But there have more or less always been lockdown-sceptical voices amongst our MPs – mostly, it must be said, from the same group of Tory ‘Spartans’ who kept the Leave campaign alive. This has meant that, for all lockdown sceptics might have complained about the herd mentality at, for instance, the BBC, they have always been able to feel as though they had political representation of some kind in the Commons. This is undoubtedly why the debate over lockdowns in the U.K. has avoided the kind of extremism seen in Canada, Australia or other jurisdictions in which lockdown sceptics have been almost entirely disenfranchised. The continuing presence of sceptical voices in our governing party has largely meant we’ve felt no need to take our campaign to the streets. Instead, we have been able to quietly and calmly state our case, safe in the knowledge that it is also being put on our behalf in Parliament. This has, perhaps unexpectedly, made it stronger. The way to win friends and influence people is not to demonstrate, but to persuade, and our political setup has facilitated that.
Second, our newspapers. Heaven knows the TV news coverage of the pandemic has been dreadful. But we should be careful about tarring ‘mainstream media’ as a whole with that brush. In fact, the Telegraph, Mail and Spectator have done sterling work since the beginning of the pandemic in presenting a range of opinions, and have been increasingly willing to take a sceptical line as time has gone on. Our media landscape is by no means perfect. But Fleet Street has shown itself to be very much alive during the past two years. For all that we worry about freedom of expression and political tribalism, it remains the case that most sensible views (and, indeed, many that aren’t very sensible) are represented in our national press. We should be proud of this, and reflect more frequently on the fact that we are by no means as bitterly divided in our media consumption as is, for instance, America.
Third, our national character. I daresay it is deeply unpopular at Notting Hill dinner parties to suggest that there could even be such a thing. But anyone who has lived in more than one country will attest that national character is real, and it matters. British people are great sticklers for rules. But we rarely feel as though those rules ought to apply to ourselves individually. We bristle against being told what to do. We value freedom in various forms, but in this way most of all: the freedom from being bossed around, to make our own decisions, to lead our own lives. This might seem a strange thing to say given the events of the past two years. But what can be attributed to momentary panic should not blind us to the underlying reality about our national psyche. Our culture has its flaws. But it also has its strengths. And this fundamental resentment of authority is without doubt one of them. It has served us in good stead throughout history, and it served us well particularly in the second half of 2021 when it became apparent that, government diktat or no, a large portion of the population were simply going to live their lives as normal.
I don’t wish to state my case too strongly. The March 2020 lockdown was a catastrophe. The ongoing restrictions and repeated experiments with that foolish practice further compounded the error. We have not come out of the crisis well. But we have at least come out of it – and that’s more than can be said for much of the rest of the world. Here and now, in February 2022, I am even able to summon up a sense of genuine optimism for the first time since the original lockdown. This may be revealed to be a mistake next winter when the inevitable Covid resurgence occurs. Yet I have a feeling that in 10 years’ time, we’ll look back on 2020-21 as a period of temporary insanity that long ago lifted. I’m not so sure that people in China will be able to do the same.
Dr. David McGrogan is an Associate Professor at Northumbria Law School.