Why the ‘English’ are tolerating lockdown

A young, white man with spectacles holding a sign saying "Open Now" with a map of Texas between the two words.
A protest against restrictions in Texas to prevent the spread of Coronavirus

James Kirkup, writer for the Spectator and director of the Social Market Foundation, published a piece on Unherd today entitled “Why the English sacrificed liberty for lockdown”, musing on how readily and with so little protest the ‘English’ abandoned “the freedom from which America was born” for safety from the Coronavirus, in many ways exceeding the expectations the government had when they imposed it, with for example only a tenth as many children remaining in school as was expected or allowed for. Elsewhere, as he says, lockdowns have resulted in protests:

Only very small numbers of people in some American states are demonstrating against the curtailment of liberty, but they are demonstrating. The English, by contrast, have accepted lockdown with a wistful shrug and maybe a bit of passive-aggressive grumbling, eschewing riots in favour of settling down with a nice cup of tea to wait things out.

To begin with, only a white person could ever describe the United States as any great example of liberty. Many of the colonies which formed the USA were dominated by slavery-based plantations; the institution took a war to end it, and thereafter, the former slaves were subjected to a reign of terror in all of the states where they had previously been used as slaves and were barred from living in many of the others. Even in England at the time, the irony of demands for freedom by slave drivers was remarked on, notably by Samuel Johnson. To this day, America allows states to obstruct voters expected not to vote for the ruling party or to gerrymander electoral districts so as to corral them into as few districts as possible or to spread their vote so as to leave them unrepresented. It is a bastion of liberty only for its ruling class. England is in many ways a more free country; it has fewer levels of government and only one law-making institution, meaning local councils cannot inflict burdensome local laws. People can walk in the road freely and cross where they like as long as it is safe; there is no such thing as ‘jaywalking’ and thus no pretext for malicious arrests.

Kirkup traces our love of liberty to Magna Carta and the Civil War, “which in England at least had its roots in the legal reasoning of men such as Sir Edward Coke, that even the monarch was subject to Parliament’s laws”. Both these events were about constraining the power of the monarch so that he or she could not act lawlessly. Neither of these things were about unrestricted personal liberty or indeed any rights for the individual at all beyond freedom from arbitrary imprisonment. As I have noted here before, these were the mere baby steps in establishing the ideas of liberty and human rights which are cherished in many countries today. Many other countries have written constitutions and higher courts to guarantee them; we do not. In fact, our governing party intends to destroy the nearest things we have to them. It is embarrassing that we boast of these things today to countries which have taken those ideas far further. England was not a free country for centuries after the Civil War: it maintained recusancy fines for people who failed to attend their local church and there were anti-Catholic riots well into the 19th century.

The anti-lockdown protests in the USA, as well as the insistence of some (all Republican) governors on resisting such measures intended to protect public health in a country where large numbers of people have no access to healthcare, have been condemned by medical experts in the USA and elsewhere as reckless and selfish. There have been banners displayed calling for the weak to be sacrificed to ‘save’ the state. There is a contempt for science and for expert authority which may be founded in envy and resentment of those with an education. There is a widespread belief that the virus itself is a hoax, and these false beliefs and reckless attitudes are fostered by the right-wing talk radio and TV networks. In addition, as the USA prides itself on its minimal welfare system and low taxes and resists introducing any form of universal state healthcare, people fear being unable to provide for their families and will be hostile to any attempt by the state to artificially deny them that right.

Finally, in the UK, compared to many other countries in Europe, the lockdown has been fairly mild. People are still able to go to their jobs although most ‘physical’ retail businesses have been closed (online shopping is still allowed and thus the warehouses that enable it are still open), people can go out on pretexts such as shopping and exercise and children are still playing outside, which in much of Europe they have not been for several weeks. The restrictions are not too oppressive; they were brought in as a result of public pressure after the government had resisted doing so for several weeks (as Kirkup notes, Boris Johnson had stated on 18th March that he did not intend to impose restrictions because “we are a land of liberty”; five days later, he did impose them) as shop workers were being put in danger by being required to work without protection and there was the spectacle of people crowding parks and rural beauty spots the following weekend, risking sharing the virus or transmitting it to new places. The government is paying 80% of the wages of those who were put on furlough when their employer’s business was rendered unable to operate or decided to scale down or suspend operations for the sake of their staff or because of reduced business. Life has become more pleasant in some respects, at least for some people: the streets are almost empty, the air is clear. You can walk freely in the middle of main roads and you can go into town and back again with no funny taste in your mouth.

A woman standing outside a Trump hotel wearing a black mask holding aloft a sign saying "Fascism + Silence = Death. @RefuseFascism".
A woman protests outside a Trump hotel in New York

Kirkup links the ‘English’ response to the ‘lockdown’ (which isn’t really a lockdown in a sense that anyone who has been in, say, a mental health institution will recognise) to a shift towards authoritarian attitudes revealed by a study by Paula Surridge of Bristol University who has performed studies on liberal and authoritarian attitudes among people of varying persuasions on the traditional “left-right” axis as well as those with a more English or more British identity, and found that authoritarian attitudes (favouring increased censorship and ‘firm’ law and order) are more popular among those with a more ‘English’ identity. This analysis rather ignores other sources of support for the current policy as well as where the chief opposition to it comes from. I frequently see tweets from healthcare workers begging people to stay at home so they do not have to keep seeing people die, especially as they cannot see their families; there has been general support for it among the Asian population which has been significantly hit by the virus. Meanwhile, the main rumblings of discontent are among Tories who have started to demand a relaxation of the restrictions fairly soon as they believe the damage to the economy is becoming too great. One does not have to have a harsh attitude to law and order to support a set of temporary restrictions to protect people, especially the elderly and disabled or chronically ill people, from being exposed to a disease that could kill them. It is worth noting that Johnson, since his brush with Covid-19, has come out against easing the ‘lockdown’ before the peak has well and truly passed.

Let’s not forget that the US Declaration of Independence named three inalienable rights as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Sometimes these three things are in conflict and sometimes everyday liberties have to be put on hold for the sake of long-term freedom for everyone: in the war to defeat fascism, for example. Today, the protection of life is incompatible with the kind of liberty we knew two months ago, or the ways most of us “pursued happiness”. Most people accepted that, indeed before the government did. It is possible that some restrictions will be lifted in the coming weeks, but people’s innocence has gone since the middle of March and many will be much more careful, going out less (at least, when they do not have to), keeping their distance from others as they do now, avoiding crowds. If the government’s plan, as rumoured, is to have the restrictions lifted to allow for VE Day celebrations, they may find the parties poorly attended.

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