I was listening yesterday to Peter Hitchens telling the world that Britain had become a police state, its citizens infantilised. He was talking about the current lockdown, everyone told to stay at home.
And I didn’t agree with him.
I suppose that what I think is that there are episodes when the normal rules governing behaviour are suspended. This happens in small communities, and also in nations. For example after a car crash in which someone has been slightly hurt, that person might be lifted up and carried away. And that’s a break with normal behaviour, in which no hand is laid on anyone.
The current coronavirus epidemic seems to me to be one of these episodes when normal rules are suspended. The British government wants to slow the spread of the virus by locking most people in their homes for a few weeks, and it needs the cooperation of the British people to do this. And the British people seem to be cooperating. Is that such a terrible thing?
I don’t think it’s terrible. I think it’s rather wonderful to see people and government in quick agreement with each other in the face of a rather sudden emergency.
Is it any different from the captain of the Titanic calling for women and children first to the lifeboats as the ship started sinking? He introduced a new rule in the emergency. Did he do something terrible? Should the passengers have revolted?
So I see what’s currently happening as being the British people going along with the British government during an emergency. I don’t think we’ve been infantilised. I don’t think Britain has become a police state.
I think that will only happen if, when the emergency is over, the lockdown continues. Britain will only become a police state if a temporary emergency is used as a pretext for permanent change.
And I don’t think that’s going to happen. Boris Johnson isn’t a dictator. Nor is he a progressive radical. When the coronavirus epidemic has passed, the lockdown will end.
If I have any reservations about what’s happening, it is that I wonder if the whole coronavirus episode is one vast over-reaction to an epidemic which may not be much worse than the flu epidemics that afflict Britain every year. We can’t know right now, but in a year or so we probably will have a much better idea. And in particular we will have a better idea of how great the economic damage the lockdown will have caused.
But my main point is that there isn’t one set of rules of conduct to which all must always conform. Instead, these rules are regularly suspended in the face of periodic emergencies. What’s right conduct at one time is wrong at another time. It is appropriate to raise an umbrella when it starts raining, and furl it when it stops raining.
I think Peter Hitchens is being rather silly.