Three-D Issue 35: Libertarians under lockdown

Julian Petley
Brunel University London

In his triumphant and swaggering Brexit speech at the Greenwich Royal Naval College on 3 February 2020, we find one of Boris Johnson’s earliest mentions of the coronavirus. It is a warning, but not of imminent peril. Rather it is a warning of the danger posed to the economy by what he regards as over-reaction to it. Thus:

We are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage.

Little did we realise what lay ahead of us then, still less that the situation would be made far worse than it need be by inaction and incompetence on the part of the government, much of it originating in exactly the kind of libertarian, “free market” attitude expressed here, with its invocation of Britain as a “country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other”. Not in the least coincidentally, the swashbuckling speech was given beneath a mural by Sir James Thornhill, The Triumph of Liberty and Peace over Tyranny, depicting William III and Mary II enthroned after the “Glorious Revolution”.

‘A freedom-loving country’

However, months of mounting deaths and levels of infection did absolutely nothing to change Johnson’s libertarian stance. So here he is in the Commons on 22 September 2020, effortlessly insulting other countries around the world by claiming that there is something specifically British about valuing freedom:

There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world: our country is a freedom-loving country. If we look at the history of this country over the past 300 years, virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country.

This view is shared by many Tory MPs and government-supporting papers in the shape of the TelegraphExpressSun and Mail. Significantly these are largely the same forces that were such vociferous advocates for Brexit, and in both instances what has powered them is a particular conception of and attitude to freedom. Just as many Brexiters shared the view of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson that the UK was a “vassal state” of the EU that needed to set itself free, so many of those who oppose lockdowns regard them as unacceptable abridgements of both individual freedom and economic activity that need to be curtailed as soon as possible

The formation of the Covid Recovery Group

The anti-EU, anti-lockdown linkage is clearly visible in the announcement on 11 November of the formation of the soi-disant Covid Recovery Group (CRG) by 50 Conservative MPs bitterly opposed to the government’s decision to introduce a second period of lockdown in England. This is chaired by the former Tory chief whip, Mark Harper, and its deputy chair is Steve Baker, formerly a minister in the Department for Existing the European Union and chair of the European Research Group (ERG), which shares numerous members with the CRG. Both groups are equally contemptuous of established expert opinion which doesn’t suit their purposes, and their members habitually hold forth with an air of authority which is entirely belied by their actual knowledge of and competencies in the fields of knowledge in question. They also enjoy an open door to the papers which share their views.

As far back as 3 May, Baker had written an article in the Telegraph, the house journal of the Tory libertarians, headed “Boris Johnson must end the absurd, dystopian and tyrannical lockdown”, which he compared to “house arrest”. Entirely predictably, Harper was given over 400 words in the same paper on 11 November, plus a generous summary of his piece by Christopher Hope, to publicise the group’s formation and demand that the government must (a) “undertake and publish a full cost benefit analysis of restrictions on a regional basis”; (b) end “the monopoly on advice of government scientists. Prevailing expert scientific opinion must be challenged by competitive, multidisciplinary expert groups. Government should publish the models that inform policies so that they can be reviewed by the public”; and (c) “ensure that all critical Covid-related policies are underpinned by at least three independent expert opinions, all to be published ahead of the next vote on restrictions in Parliament”.

Unfeasible demands

This set the pattern for all the CRG’s subsequent interventions. Thus on 22 November, the CRG, now numbering 70 MPs, wrote to Johnson protesting about his proposed three-tier scheme to replace the national lockdown. The letter told Johnson that the MPs could not support his approach unless the government demonstrated that the proposed new restrictions would “save more lives than they cost”. To this end, they insisted that the government “must publish a full cost benefit analysis of the proposed restrictions on a regional basis, so that MPs can assess responsibly the non-Covid health impact of restrictions, as well as the undoubted impact on livelihoods”, adding that “the burden is on the Government to demonstrate the necessity and proportionality of each restriction”.

That such a demand is palpably (and, one assumes, deliberately) unfeasible did not stop the letter being enthusiastically amplified by the CRG’s press allies. Thus the Sunday Express published the letter in full and splashed the story on the front page under the headline “Boris facing Tory REVOLT as MPs furiously reject looming Covid crackdown after December 2”. The same day’s Sun quoted at length from the letter in its article headed “‘PROVE IT’LL SAVE LIVES’. Boris Johnson faces rebellion over tough New lockdown tiers as 70 Tory MPs say they’ll REFUSE to vote for it”. It was also the subject of an article in the Sunday Telegraph and another in the next day’s edition, with the latter carrying an 895-word article by one of the letter’s signatories, Nusrat Ghani, the Tory MP for Wealden, headed ‘I will not support renewed Covid restrictions if the cure is worse than the disease’. As the headline suggests, the article is largely a re-hash of the letter, although it adds its own libertarian flourish with the words:

We have already overstepped the mark and it is particularly intolerable to me that it is the Conservative Party that is legislating about how people live their lives in their private homes. In my experience, when men, institutions and governments get hold of that power, they give it up very reluctantly.

As the vote on the tier system neared, coverage favourable to the CRG continued apace. For example, Harper was allotted 674 words in the Sunday Telegraph, 29 November, to demand once again that the government “publish its assessment of the impact restrictions are likely to have on controlling Covid, as well as the non-Covid health impact, and the impact on people’s livelihoods and businesses”, whilst an editorial in the daily edition on 2 December, following the government’s Commons victory, complained that “its strategy is less a proportionate response to the virus than a heavy-handed and illiberal regime, which undermines our fundamental freedoms at the risk of permanently damaging our prosperity”.

Another letter

The most recent episode in this saga occurred on 11 February when the ERG, taking advantage of the success of the government’s vaccination programme, wrote yet again to Johnson, this time demanding the permanent lifting of all Covid restrictions as soon as all those over 50 had been vaccinated, with schools opening on 8 March and pubs and restaurants on the Easter weekend of 3-4 April. In its article headlined “Boris Johnson handed lockdown ultimatum”, the Sunday Express, 14 February, referred to the CRG as “a powerful group of Tory MPs” and quoted from their letter to the effect that “the vaccine gives us immunity from Covid but it must also give us permanent immunity from Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions”. And their trademark mantra is quoted in the same day’s Mail on Sunday, in an article headed “Back in the pub garden by Easter!”, to the effect that “all restrictions remaining after March 8 should be proportionate to the ever-increasing number of people we have protected. The burden is on Ministers to demonstrate the evidence of effectiveness and proportionality with a cost-benefit analysis for each restriction, and a roadmap for when they will be removed”. In the Sun, CRG member and chair of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, in an article headed “It’s time to now break the chains of Britain’s national lockdown” attacks those who he accuses of “advocating never-ending house arrest for everyone” and argues that “in this country, the Government is there to serve the people, not to tell us what to do”. Thus it should “give back control over people’s lives while helping us to take responsibility for ourselves”.

Brady’s comments illustrate particularly clearly the kind of Tory libertarian attitude to the lockdown which is the subject of this article, but there is more to hostility to the lockdown than simply a no-nonsense, John Bullish attitude to individual freedom. In particular, just as in the case of Brexit, there is on the part of the CRG and its press allies an intense suspicion of and hostility to expert opinion, however well-established and widely respected, that doesn’t accord with their own particular view of the world. This is, in fact, yet another aspect of the culture wars now raging in the UK.

An unvarnished voice

But there is also something else at the heart of this anti-lockdown sentiment, and that is a profound fear that government policy is endangering not only individual freedom but the workings of the “free market” (the two of course being intimately linked in the Tory vision of things). This frequently expresses itself in a somewhat sub-textual fashion, but it comes right to the fore in one of Daniel Hannan’s weekly homilies in the Sunday Telegraph. Thus in his offering of 14 February, entitled ‘The economy won’t spring back until we get serious about tax cuts and deregulation’, Hannan worries that ‘emergency programmes are easier to establish than to dismantle’ and enquires:

How many politicians do you hear arguing that the one-off extension to free school meals should end once schools reopen? Or that the bump in Universal Credit should lapse? Or that the grants given to businesses, charities, arts groups and the rest will have to stop? Or that public sector workers shouldn’t expect pay rises when the private sector is suffering unprecedented cuts? Or that the minimum wage can’t keep rising when average salaries have collapsed and unemployment is going up?

In Hannan’s ideal world, after we come out of lockdown these Tory aberrations would have to cease, because

we need to focus on growth. That, in the end, is the only way out of this mess. Focusing on growth means adopting the things that we know make economies prosper: lower, flatter and simpler taxes, sound money, free trade and a competitive regulatory regime.

Almost inevitably, then, a return to austerity.

This is the true, unvarnished voice of all those Tories in parliament and the press for whom the extent of dirigisme and public spending witnessed during the pandemic offends against every fibre of their political, ideological and economic being, and its harsh implications make it perhaps unsurprising that it tends to be kept safely under wraps. But this is what lies beneath all the CRG’s endlessly repeated demands for “full cost benefit analysis” of the Covid restrictions and tests of their “effectiveness and proportionality”. Of course, these are always accompanied by sympathetic noises about the terrible and cruel impact of these restrictions on people’s livelihoods and daily existence. However, even a cursory glance at the voting records of Baker, Harper and Brady suggests that what we’re hearing is the splash of crocodile tears being shed, since they have all consistently voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability, and raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices; and for reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (the “bedroom tax”), reducing spending on welfare benefits, and ending financial support for some ١٦-١٩ year olds in training and further education.

As for the social and economic policies advocated by the various Tory newspapers cited above, just don’t get me started.

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