Fighting pandemics in a liberal society

Fighting pandemics in a liberal society

Since the beginning of human history, those who wish to be in charge have sought to control the lives of those around them.  This has applied from local settlements, through tribes, feudal lords to monarchs…and then to politicians who adopted monarchical powers.

Throughout most of that time, they were able to achieve that control through force.  However, as weaponry advanced, and strength alone could not enforce obedience, the methods of control had to change and become more subtle.

Religion, of course, was always employed.  But as belief in a higher power declined, other methods were needed.

By far the most common method has been to promise people a better and safer life, providing they are willing to allow the state more control.

The most recent example in this country was the proposal for identity cards, which were variously sold as being essential in the fight against identity fraud, benefit fraud, terrorism, and organised crime, as well as proving entitlement and access to public services.

However, it reaches its apogee during wars, when the state can assume virtually unlimited powers to control people’s lives and acquire property.  Unfortunately, the state likes these powers, and they often remain long after the reason for their introduction has passed.

Ask, if you could, the people of Tyneham in Dorset.  Requisitioned just before Christmas 1943 by the then War Office, 225 people were displaced.  This measure was supposed to be for the duration of World War II, but in 1948 the land was compulsory purchased, and it has remained in use for military training ever since.

Rationing didn’t end until 1954 and National Service until 1960.

Even the Land of the Free is not immune.  The USA Patriot Act passed in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks has been described as an “unprecedented violation of Americans’ civil liberties.”  One of its clauses, permitting bulk phone record surveillance, was used in 2018 by the NSA to collect records from over 19 million phone numbers, based on fewer than 50 targets.  

Initially subject to a four-year sunset clause it remains in force and is likely to be extended later this year.

The message is clear – do not assume that rights given up in extreme situations will be returned and, if they are, don’t assume their previous existence won’t be used as a precedent.

And so, we reach the current crisis.  The government describing this as a war and invoking wartime analogies is no coincidence.  The state knows from experience that this provides it with its greatest leverage.  Messages such as “We are all in this together” and “Everyone must do their bit” are designed specifically so than any objection is seen as unpatriotic and anti-social.

In his well-reasoned article, Amin has correctly stated a principle that “I am free to live my life as I wish, provided I do not harm others.”  No one could disagree with that, and it covers the situation where people known to have the virus are kept separate from the rest of society. 

It is not too much of a stretch to extend that to members of the same household, providing a provisioning facility can be put in place.

However, we must not gloss over the fact that, even in previous wars, whole countries have never been placed under what almost amounts to house arrest and swathes of the population deprived of their livelihood. 

As Liberty wrote recently:

“Everyone’s civil liberties have been stripped, with the police given extraordinary powers which are already being applied unevenly.” 

Perhaps not surprisingly, given historical precedents, the government has given itself these powers for two years – far longer than the likely period of the pandemic.

Amin also highlights that there are those who may not care if they get infected. However, he then asks, with justification, “Are the rest of us then expected to care for them in their illness?”

That path, though, leads to the thin end of a very long wedge.  Such a precedent, once set, could be extended to limit the treatment the NHS gives to smokers, to the obese.  Who knows, even fitness fanatics could be denied treatment for stress fractures.

We cannot dismiss it with “That would never happen.”  The state has found itself very adept at salami-slicing aware personal freedoms through the provision of a service.

Finally, we come to the idea to track people’s contact activity by use of their mobile phones.  It is important to note that it is the principle here that we should consider.  Even if some aspects of the proposals are not achievable now, we are frighteningly close to a time when they will be.

Anyone who has read Shoshana Zuboff’s excellent book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism will appreciate the symbiotic relationship between government and big data.  In this crisis, the government has refused to deny that it used data from Google to map people’s movements prior to introducing the lockdown.

From a civil liberties point of view, this would be a national identity card on steroids.  The state would not only be able to demand you prove who you are, it would be able to track literally your every movement – and everyone you have met.

This article is not designed to critique the medical value or economic cost of the government’s response to Covid-19, nor assess the alternatives it has chosen not to adopt.  There will be time for that in the Inquiries to come

Rather it is intended to look at the price we are paying in terms of the invasion of our privacy and loss of our civil liberties, and ask if that is a price worth paying?

It is difficult when faced with an immediate, identifiable threat to compare that to a more nebulous price that we may have to pay in the future.  But that is what we must do.

The changes introduced recently demanded more than just the few hours debate in parliament they received.  As Liberty also commented:

“We’re all prepared to make changes, but history shows that those in power will often overstep the mark in times of crisis. Hard-won rights and freedoms are often taken away again under the cover of an emergency. And temporary suspension has a habit of turning into permanent erasure.”

“Sacrifices must be made, but everyone’s rights and freedoms must be protected.”

We have been warned by history – why do we think this time will be different?

Ian Collard was a Conservative activist for over 20 years, before leaving the party in 2018.  These are his personal views and do not represent those of Movement46.

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