So happy to be serfs

In just a few short weeks we have cast aside freedoms it took centuries to win. Fawning faith in authority will lead to further outrages

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Police patrolling Brighton beach ask a group not observing lockdown to leave (© Luke Dray/Getty Images)

I am used to being derided on the Internet for believing in God. I don’t much mind. This belief is, after all, a chosen opinion, which may be wrong. People are quite entitled to sneer at it if this gives them happiness. In fact I am warned in Holy Writ to expect and even relish this sort of thing. And unless some giant, volcanic upheaval in politics somehow places power in my hands, my religious opinions affect nobody but me. I can’t even persuade other members of my immediate family to adopt the enjoyably gloomy but poetic version of Anglicanism which I now embrace.

How then, in such a supposedly sceptical hard-nosed world, in which faith itself is widely considered to be comically absurd, do people have such trust in governments and political figures?

For weeks now I have been trying to point out that quite prominent figures in science and medicine do not agree with the policy of several major governments—that stifling personal liberty and crashing their economies will protect us from the Covid-19 virus. And almost nobody has seriously disagreed with me. It has been much, much worse than that.

There have been two responses to my attempts to argue. They are in a way a matching pair, interlocking though apparently different. The first is howling abuse, including suggestions that I desire the deaths of my fellow-creatures. It is often quite angry, outraged and personal. I sense that many of my attackers would be quite content if I were to be censored or arrested. I assume that these assailants are the sort of people who spend their lives in basements quietly converting sugary, fizzy drinks into human lard. So I am not especially troubled by their wrath just now, though I do fear that there will one day be quite strong popular support for some sort of thought policing to “deal with” unpopular dissent.

Far more worrying has been the response of the great mass of the chattering classes. They do not sneer. They just sit in their large back gardens, sipping at misted glasses of Waitrose Chablis, enjoying the seemingly endless holiday from ordinary life which has been granted to them.

One or two have given me friendly waves from their comfy garden chairs, saying how much they admire my stand, etc. But they do not regard it as a matter for them. The argument, such as it is, is a spectator sport without implications for them. They are quite content, in practice, to submit to home imprisonment. They like their homes. They have spent a lot of money on them. They are not compelled to sit with a lot of small children in a tiny house on a big estate in Barnsley or Chorley. Their local police are unlikely to tell them off for going in their front gardens or frivolously buying wine instead of potatoes. Their neighbours will probably not denounce them to the constabulary, if they observe them going out more often than is strictly allowed, or staying out longer than Michael Gove would like them to. In general, they accept what they have been told. Attempt to discuss the matter with them, and you will find that they presuppose the truth of the claim that “social distancing” will save us. They already accept for certain that the intensive care units of our hospitals were not overwhelmed because the government took its stern and decisive action. In short they have faith in the government. Some silly prophet preaching in the street that the science is contested, and that the consequences may be disastrous, just dissolves into wordless yelling on the edge of their consciousness.

Next, I greatly fear, will come the stage when the same swooning, fawning faith in authority transfers itself to the measures needed to pay for the economic disaster we have inflicted on ourselves. Still wearing the symbolically anonymising facemasks that make us look like gagged, humbled prisoners, we will accede to all manner of outrages to “protect the NHS” and “save lives”. What these will be, I cannot tell—though I think many of them will be very distressing indeed. But at that stage it will be terribly useful that we have all grown so used to being told what to do, and to obeying. The freedom to leave your house when you wish to and go where you will is not a civil liberty or a political liberty. It is part of being a free man or woman. Those who do not have it, who fear being scolded like a child, fined and disgraced for being out on the street without government approval, are like serfs tied to the land they work. So sorry, officer. I won’t do it again. Only it is worse. Those who willingly accepted this subjection were previously free, thanks not to themselves but to forebears who first won and then repeatedly preserved their liberty from threats within and without.

Then this generation came, and undid the work of a thousand years in a few weeks. Worse, in a way—they gave away something they had a duty to pass on undamaged to their children. They did not even raise a word of protest. And they did not trade in their birthrights because dragoons cut them down in the fields, or foreign soldiers lounged in the streets with machine pistols, or secret police threatened them with death or labour camps. They did it because they could not be bothered to think or argue or object.

 


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.