What a strange moment of ambivalence this is. The vaccination programme seems to have so far worked its expected wonders, the lifting of key restrictions looms, and a fragile sense of optimism has been boosted by balmy weather. But there is a slowly rising unease about something that may yet cut across that increasingly upbeat mood: the fact that this is a dangerous moment for both our democracy, and the relationship between the state and society.
Everywhere you look, there are high-ranking Conservatives blithely evading scrutiny, and the government is thereby slipping free of meaningful constraints. From the prime minister’s relationship with the “technology entrepreneur” Jennifer Arcuri and her access to public funds and favours, to the stink given off by David Cameron’s efforts on behalf of the financier Lex Greensill, recent headlines have confirmed that old-fashioned ideas of probity now count for very little at all. Much the same applies to the way Covid-related contracts and jobs have been brazenly handed to associates of senior Tories.
An associated theme that has run through Boris Johnson’s time in office has been the sidelining of parliament: the attempt to suspend it for five weeks during the Brexit contortions of 2019, the pitiful levels of debate and scrutiny allowed on coronavirus rules and legislation, and the shameful rushing-through of the new police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. The latter, of course, was at the heart of protests and disturbances in Bristol – and, as a matter of implication, those awful scenes on Clapham Common. And in the images of the police being so reckless and Tory high-ups seemingly acting with impunity, you see the same thing: power unchecked, doing what it wants because it knows it can.
At the heart of all this is something awkward and difficult. Both this government’s ingrained arrogance and the tendency of the British state to turn nasty and authoritarian were obviously present before the pandemic. But Covid has proved to be the perfect pretext for both to balloon.
To point that out does not turn you into Laurence Fox. It seems perfectly reasonable to reluctantly believe that lockdowns have been necessary, but also to worry about the nature of many of the restrictions, the way they have been railroaded through, and the precedents that have been set. As the worst of the pandemic recedes, moreover, unease about these things ought to rapidly take the form of sustained vigilance. Whatever Johnson may say, restrictions are not likely to shrink to nothing by the end of June, and thanks to Covid variants lockdowns could yet return. But we also need to think about what kind of long-term future we have unwittingly been creating for the past 13 months.
That period has seenthe collective sacrifice of individual wants and needs for the collective good, something that people on the left have understandably cheered. But viewed from a slightly different perspective, the UK’s Covid experience has also amounted to a huge trial of people’s willingness to accept mind-boggling extensions of the state’s reach, in which predictions of mass “fatigue” have failed to materialise.
People in positions of authority are hardly likely to forget such a basic lesson in the balance between power and consent. So, when another crisis materialises, what then? The high-profile human rights lawyer Adam Wagner, one of the past year’s most questioning voices, has a possible answer: “Come the next great threat, we have set the marker: parliament will not have a say and will hardly raise a whimper; decisions will be made on a whim by whichever person, however capricious, happens to be behind a particular ministerial desk.”
What is already happening actually suggests something even worse: as we saw in the era of the “war on terror”, even as the current panic dies down, powers that were initially presented as temporary look set to endure. As the civil rights pressure group Liberty puts it, the restrictions on protest in the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill amount to a brazen quest to “use this public health crisis as cover to make emergency measures permanent”. There is a similar flavour to the bill’s proposed crackdown on “unauthorised encampments”, and what it will mean for Gypsy and Traveller communities – another attempt to sustain the politics of enforced conformity, with yet another Covid resonance: the fact that in a country that has been endlessly told to “stay home”, being nomadic is now close to being simply deemed criminal.
And there is the prospect of vaccine passports (or, to use officialspeak, a “Covid certification scheme”), something Johnson will talk about on Monday. Initial briefings have emphasised the idea’s supposedly in-built limitations, and framed it as the key to reviving festivals, sport events and nightclubs. The scheme’s opponents will presumably be maligned as overheated killjoys. But there are obvious reasons to feel uneasy. In the context of Tory politics, restricting certain people’s participation in everyday life is hardly new: for almost 10 years it has defined the Home Office’s miserable “hostile environment” doctrine. Any such system will collide with awkward social facts – such as the fact that vaccination rates have been comparatively low in many communities of colour. And given the tools to do so, wouldn’t ministers sooner or later want to push similar logic into criminal justice, the “conditionality” of benefits, and much more besides?
For the past year, the UK’s attempt at a culture war has encouraged people on the left to zealously argue for lockdowns and restrictions, against elements on the right who have often opposed not just those measures, but any insistence that Covid-19 was a grave threat. Now, there are signs of a possible realignment: the Labour leadership’s switch from abstaining on the aforementioned bill to voting against it, Keir Starmer’s recent opinion that vaccine passports would be “un-British”; the fact that 21 Labour MPs – largely drawn from the party’s dissident left, but with a few names from elsewhere – recently defied the whip and opposed the renewal of the draconian Coronavirus Act 2020. But the debate about democracy, the state and civil liberties remains weakened by the decline of the Liberal Democrats, the smallness of the Green party – and, in an age when “liberal” often seems to have become an insult, a broader sense that that element of progressive politics has been mislaid.
It needs to return, so we can at last tackle hugely increased state power, and the people at the top who clearly think they can get away with just about anything. The fusion of the two threatens an immediate future that could be grim: ice-creams, picnics and “normality” amid sirens, searches and a model of government that’s devoid of any real checks and restraints. Whatever we endured the past year for, it was surely not that.