Wednesday, October 28, 2020
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Safety second – life comes first

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STAY safe. This is the anthem of our society in a world racked with fear of the coronavirus. The governing outlook of safety has dictated who can work and that we all must suspend the living of life in response to this threat. However well-meaning and potentially valid in the beginning, does this perpetual lockdown mean that the coronavirus has beaten us?  For many weeks we are compelled to stay at home because it might be dangerous outside, but no one is safe from life or the world. There can be too much safety, and economic privation can threaten lives too; this is the legacy of lockdown.

We have deluded ourselves that we are the immortal gods of this earth, this planet of beings alone in a dark universe of vast emptiness and mystery. All the while environmentalists tell us that we can control the climate; Silicon Valley tells us that digits and data are the only world that matters; hapless politicians look to marketing and optics in place of leadership and statecraft, and scientists who dabble in life have the audacity to model it and model us, believing that all knowledge, even that of the future, can be found in a single computer programme.

There is no monopoly on truth, nor is there fact in prediction, particularly when we are in uncharted waters. All we can do is look to the past and trust our better instincts, whilst we attempt to keep to best-laid plans made in less fraught times.  We have patientless Nightingale hospitals, the perfect metaphor for government planning, when a knee-jerk reaction to a single worst-case scenario prediction becomes policy.

Those not tired of lockdown are tired of life. I have sympathy with this weariness. It is hard not to grow tired of our post credit-crisis society, the land of ideology and identity politics, where liberty and democracy are but a forgotten cliché, and the old rules of life, death, freedom and truth no longer apply. As we celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE day, we seemed to be closer to Private Pike of Dad’s Army than the characters of The Great Escape. 

The worry about the destruction of the economy is real; the health of the nation is the health of the economy. However strong the economy previously appeared, much was lacklustre. Lack of invention and innovation forces us to revel in a new generation of smartphones almost the same as the last; we don’t have Concorde any more and we talk of growth and progress. Much of the previous growth in our economy produced nothing. The growing industries are regulatory compliance and human resources, jobs which leech off the productivity of the useful: fake growth and a false economy. Now within industry there is a ‘bourgeoisie’ of bureaucrats for various forms of safety with control over the means of production; the productive and the customers are a trivial inconvenience.  So when the government and your employer say, ‘Stay home, get paid, forget your next appraisal to see how you stack up against the corporate “behaviours”, and feel free to leave those purposeless regulatory compliance checks,’ most would reply, ‘Where do I sign up for lockdown?’ Safety is as good a reason as any to take a break from the monotony.

Safety first? Better safe than sorry? Maybe it is better to risk being sorry than be afraid and destitute. We can at least learn from sorry; we cannot learn from safe. Safety would have us still in the dark of a damp cave; forget fire because it’s too risky, and avoid the wheel – that could spin out of control. For a wartime analogy, the history of 1930s appeasement shows that safety can lead to disaster; responsibility was abdicated for the want of a paper promise of safety signed by a dictator.  ‘Safety’ can even kill directly if you read about the Committee of Public Safety in the French revolution; who can argue against control under the guise of safety? 

Safety second, life comes first; to live is to risk and be uncertain. Only the dead are safe from the slings and arrows of life on earth; it takes the living to take arms against a sea of troubles. Whatever happened to ‘the show must go on’? This show was cancelled, and we stay inside binge-watching old boxsets, comfortably numb, whilst on this multi-month staycation we run up an unpayable public debt that would make John Maynard Keynes blush. Even the animals are mocking us; this is the age of the squirrel and the blue tit, flaunting their freedom as we jealously gaze out of the window. 

Despite the frequent comparisons, we are not at war. In a way we retreated before any war was declared, retreating from life, work, family, and society. We’ll work again. However, I fear the recovery which will eventually follow this self-imposed social and financial crisis will be born out of the same thinking that caused our present situation: our lack of preparedness and resilience. Although maybe this experience will inoculate us against the culture of bureaucratic safety.

 As we recover and emerge from our homes, we will need a sentimental renaissance of British liberty, and an unsentimental reflection on the NHS.  We entered lockdown to protect the NHS at great financial, emotional and social cost to the people it exists to serve; this cannot be healthy. All credit to the doctors, nurses and carers who do their superb best, despite the system they find themselves in; they deserve better. I added the preceding sentence to forestall a potential backlash, in case the unstated obvious suggested any criticism of these vital individuals; safety seems to be contagious.

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Simon Elliott
Simon Elliott works as a consultant project manager in the City of London for a global bank, and writes in his spare time with a conservative and classical liberal perspective.

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