Hugh Osmond and Sacha Lord are back in court this week to argue that the Government’s refusal to reopen indoor hospitality is inconsistent with the opening up of “non-essential” retail. I wish them luck, I really do. But I fear that they are battling not against SAGE evidence but against the miserable assumptions on which that “evidence” is based.
Why has this Government gone to war on pubs when the hospitality industry was last year responsible for fewer that 3% of Covid infections? It’s tempting to conclude that the SAGE types are not worried that pubs are possible vectors of transmission, but that they are concerned that hospitality venues are potential theatres of dissent. Or, worse, that they are places where people have the temerity to enjoy themselves.
The Lockdown Sanhedrin, the SAGE clerisy, is itself infected with the virus of puritanism. It’s impossible to look at Chris Whitty without concluding that other people’s enjoyment presents itself to him as a sort of personal Kryptonite. Boris’s self-announced “libertarianism” seems to amount to little more than the thesis that he gets to do what he wants and the rest of us can go hang. But I think it goes deeper than that – the Government and in particular its advisers are in thrall to a metaphysics of joylessness.
At the start of this crisis, the Government decided that it was qualified to make a distinction between those activities which are essential and those which are not. The latter were consequently eliminated from the list of what was permitted. To put it another way, it took upon itself the right to decide what counts as work, and what counts as mere “play”.
But it is not clear that any such distinction exists, and if it does then it does not follow that we should prioritise work over play, even in a pandemic. Aristotle claimed that the “first principle of activity is leisure”: that we work in order to play; that play is a more valuable activity than work because it is something that is done for its own sake. The vulgar utilitarianism which has shaped SAGE’s pandemic response is a crude sanitisation of our understanding of the human soul. Not every worthwhile thing that we do as human persons can be reduced to the requirements of a Downing St data slide.
Pubs matter for reasons that go further than the economics of the hospitality sector, important though those are. They matter because they are playgrounds for adults. They are important because they remind us that not everything has to be geared to the puritanical assumption that we work only to get up and repeat the same day.
And they matter because they have their own internal social grammar, one which has been handed down from generation to generation. The pub has its own set of protocols (the “round”) and its own systems of internal conflict resolution (“let’s take this outside”).
It is in the pub that people can whisper conspiracy against a Government narrative. And conspiracies always require that the like-minded are allowed to gather. It is over a drink that the millionaire and the pauper can come together and compare notes.
Johnson is currently offering us a sinister inversion of what a pub is, one in which you are tracked, traced, audited, judged, and humiliated. The “road map”, in this industry at least, is one that leads you not into “normal” but into a “Twin Peaks” version of it.
This Government needs to be careful. I am not persuaded that it has gone to war against us. But it’s starting to give that impression. Why? Because if you were given carte blanche to construct a police state this is how you’d do it: you would stamp on the enjoyment of the great unwashed and confiscate all mechanisms of dissent. The Government’s war on pubs is ticking both those boxes.
Sean Walsh is a writer and former university teacher.