IF coronavirus does end up curbing individual freedoms in Britain, it will be because we acquiesced, however grumblingly. It’s what we do and, typically, there has been no serious pushback against the coronavirus rules such as organised civil disobedience. Whittling away rights is what governments do to make complex societies manageable.
Brexit has been the sole postwar political success that the man in the street could call his own, and it would never have happened without one man, Nigel Farage. His feat was to collectivise long-standing individual discontent with the EU to such an extent that Cameron was forced to call the referendum which, to their thunderstruck astonishment, undid the ruling Europhiles. Farage was the Jack Cade, the John Hampden and the Captain Swing of his day, leading a popular revolt against the elites and their monopoly on power.
What he achieved, against everything the system could stack against him, was stupendous. He defeated the top-down, bureaucratised mode of government that has gradually assumed sway over us in a continuation of the centralisation of power that was necessary in WW2. This process never went away after the peace, which is why people are right to be suspicious of the political afterlife of the Covid crisis. Politicians never willingly a surrender a power they have acquired.
It’s impossible to imagine now the pre-1914 Britain where A J P Taylor said the nearest contact the average person had with the state was with the bobby and the postman. In fact the exigencies of the Great War were where things started to go wrong for the free society.
Farage is having less success with his anti-immigration campaign because politicians and the media, wise to his populist magic, have combined to stifle his efforts to rouse another popular army. Immigration is a perfect example of an issue of national importance in which the citizenry have acquiesced to the opposite of their expressed will.
Successive governments have cordoned off immigration as a legitimate subject of debate since Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in the 1960s, so that Tony Blair felt strong enough to throw open the borders 30 years ago and be sure that no one would stop him. We can talk about immigration as much as we like, but the chances of limitations on it reaching parliament for a decision on its future are virtually nil.
Reasonable people have questioned the visible downsides of mass immigration for 30 years without making the slightest dent in the determination of government to maintain its pro- policies. Violence anywhere in the two-thirds of the world that does not share Western values and is governed badly immediately trumps any argument against immigration and its sometimes malign influences.
In fact, it has become a new Western value that it is our moral duty to be a safety net for everyone else whatever the damage to ourselves, since our own resources and habitable land are not infinite. Harrumphing about a return of the White Man’s Burden is definitely not welcome in these BLM-arbitrated times but that’s what it is.
Let’s list the big public issues that matter to us all which have been decided without reference to the population at large in recent decades by our liberal overlords of all mainstream political persuasions who act as if they belonged to a higher moral sphere.
We could start with the de facto abolition of capital punishment in 1965, which was hugely controversial and which millions opposed but were ignored by parliament. From abortion to easy divorce, entry into the EEC, the evolution towards leniency for criminals as official policy, the constant tinkering with educational standards to make them less challenging, the Iraq war and the legalisation of gay marriage, huge changes have taken place without common consent.
Of course, we live in a representative democracy and I do not say that in each of the cases cited parliament was always wrong or that we haven’t come round to accepting legislation that we disliked at the time. But what is missing is accountability. By-elections may hinge on a single issue, but no general election is ever going to be fought on a single social issue as opposed to the economy.
The result is that parliaments are elected on the basis of narrow manifestos in which matters about which the public have strong feelings are buried or lost altogether. A government that has a safe majority can do a great deal as it likes in many discrete and ad hoc ways because our attention is distracted by the faux political scandals that dominate the media like Lenin’s opium.
At this stage, it’s inconceivable that any parliament of either Right or Left would force the government to halt immigration while we digest the immigration that has already taken place, and write pragmatic rules for future immigration if we want it.
The public response to the government’s response to the virus shows that we British are still essentially an obedient and law-abiding people but that we fear our government. We fear that it will abuse its power to make temporary laws permanent and that we have no way of pushing back; it’s not our way to take to the streets like the French.
What we have is government which has not kept pace with the changes in our people. We are better informed, more conscious of our individuality and freer to push our opinions publicly due to the internet than previous generations. We expect our voices to be heard and we are less tolerant of the ‘Whitehall knows best’ attitude which elites still believe should insulate them from hoi polloi.
The quite young and women are voting categories that weigh more heavily on public opinion than they did a generation ago; young women are increasingly opinion leaders and teenagers expect their opinions to be taken seriously on the grounds that they will have to live longest with the decisions we take today.
The strong opposition to the restrictions imposed to manage the pandemic is the symptom of a sense that our present politics is no longer fit for purpose. The message is that we need to find a way to transform ourselves from a representative into a participatory democracy while still retaining the kind of coherent government provided by four- to five-year parliaments. The Swiss have shown it can be done and the technology can be there readily.
After New Labour won power and set course for the heart of Brussels and a supercharged bureaucracy at home, I have a strong memory of the arch-European Peter Mandelson saying that we were witnessing the gradual decline of representative democracy. He meant more and more power would pass into the hands of faceless people in London and abroad whom we could never get at. The evidence is in that he was wrong.