Boris Johnson is poised to announce his plans for easing Britain out of Covid lockdown. He’s already said, in one of those tiresome phrases beloved of politicial ‘comms’ advisers, that his decision will be informed by ‘data not dates’. Some people think we already have enough data to start talking dates. Others claim the data are still far too uncertain for there to be anything other than extreme caution in thinking about dates at all. But there’s an even trickier factor in the Prime Minister’s calculation: judging how much or how little consent there is out there for continuing curbs on our freedoms. Without public consent, coercive measures to defeat Covid become themselves self-defeating if people simply defy them. So where is the balance between consent and coercion?
Democratic societies often refer to themselves as ‘free’ societies. And so they are, if the comparison is with societies ruled by authoritarian or totalitarian governments: in democracies we are free to chuck out governments and so those governments have to rule with the grain of public opinion. Yet the term ‘free society’ can also be misleading in that it is often taken to provide a sort of measure, so that the freest societies are those where governments do least and individuals are left maximally free to whatever they damn well want. ‘Unfree’ societies are the opposite. This way of defining a free society may have been fine for pre-industrial societies, or out on the expanding frontiers of America in the early nineteenth century but (pacé redneck, gun-toting, facemask-refuseniks in contemporary America) it doesn’t bear scrutiny when it’s applied to the highly complex, interdependent industrial societies most of us in the ‘free’ world now live in.
If we in modern free societies tried to organise ourselves on the principle ‘individual freedom good, government bad’, the whole thing would soon collapse. We need government to hold the ring, and government can do that only through coercion. But because we are free societies, the coercive powers of government have to be exercised according to our consent. In short, modern free societies involve a largely unchoreographed dance between coercion and consent in which each move, each step, has to be tentatively negotiated. The art of democratic politics is to get the dance flowing smoothly.
Covid, and the reactions of both the public and the government to it, are a good illustration of this. The old notion of a free society (freedom good, government bad) would lead us to suppose that government would respond to the sudden appearance of the virus with coercive measures that the freedom-loving public would resent or even defy. But this is not, in general, how things turned out. Indeed you could say exactly the opposite happened. The standard criticism of Boris Johnson’s government is that it was slow to take the threat seriously and then slow to take the coercive measures necessary to deal with it. Meanwhile, the public, far from being jealous of its freedoms, has mostly wanted the government to be more coercive rather than less. In terms of the dance, we have been critical of the government for not putting its coercive foot forward more forcefully.
But such is the subtle and essentially improvised nature of the dance, that it has not been simply a question of the public saying ‘lead, and we will follow’. Consent is always waiting to be withheld if the steps of the ‘lead’ don’t seem to make sense. So although the public has wanted the government, overall, to be more coercive, we all know of myriad cases where it has protested if the specific restrictions don’t seem to add up.
From Day One newspaper columns have been full of such cases. Why should neighbours be allowed to meet in a park but not in a front garden? Why should amateur football be allowed but not amateur tennis? Why should I be forced to take my exercise in my local park when everyone else is doing the same thing and so dangerously clogging up the place, but be prevented from driving an hour to some remote spot where I can take a walk in total solitude? Add your own examples to the list.
It’s negotiating all these cogent objections to specific restrictions that makes it so difficult for government to lead the dance. It has a fickle partner who wants to be led but also wants to retain the freedom to object to particular steps. It’s not as though governments can simply ignore their tiresome dance partners. Democratic governments that try to rule against the grain of commonsensical public opinion soon find their rules are defied and then they often have to back down.
When, at the beginning of the pandemic, my local council locked the park gates and told us it was out of bounds, many of us simply hopped over the gate and carried on regardless. The council eventually had to open up and think of more sensible ways of promoting social distancing. One of their dafter solutions was to lock the gates to the AstroTurf where the local kids played football. People responded by cutting holes in the high fence. That battle continues.
So the trick for governments, if they want their coercive measures to be effective and don’t want themselves to come a cropper at the ballot box, is to judge where public consent lies on the spectrum between coercion and freedom.
It is making this assessment (rather than data versus dates) that is really at the core of Boris Johnson’s decision-making. Initially he got it wrong: he took the ‘point of consent’ to lie much nearer the freedom end than it actually was. He got his fingers burned both in terms of actually getting on top of the pandemic (with the result that Britain has suffered the worst per capita death rate as well as one of the severest economic contractions) and also politically, allowing Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader, to charge him with having been consistently behind events.
Now, it would seem, he’s tending in the other direction, trying to downplay expectations of an imminent relaxation in the lockdown rules. He would seem to have concluded that in terms of maintaining consent for necessary measures, minimising continuing economic damage and, not least, his own political survival, his best bet is to judge that, whatever the current grumbling and impatience to get back to normal life, there will be more consent for continuing restrictive coercion than for any premature dash for freedom.
It may be that the Prime Minister has accepted that, despite what the old notion of a free society might have taught, in this subtle dance between coercion and consent the public will take a great deal more coercion than is usually imagined. It’s instructive to look back at cases where governments have defied public opinion (or least highly vocal parts of public opinion) and insisted on measures that were initially condemned as unduly coercive only for public opinion to come to regard them as uncontroversial.
Take, for example, the introduction of CCTV cameras. They were widely condemned as an outrageous assault on the very principles of a free society, atrocities straight out of the pages of Orwell’s 1984. We were no longer free to walk the streets of this green and pleasant land without being permanently snooped upon. That was then. Nothing has changed since their first introduction except that the number of CCTV cameras has grown so fast that Britain now has one of the greatest CCTV surveillance capacities in the world. Most of us now, though, simply take it in our stride. It’s no longer much of an issue and the advantages – tracking criminals, for example – are spoken of more commonly than the supposed outrage on our civil liberties. That may change, of course, if CCTV capacity is widely augmented by facial recognition technology. But the point remains: a government that persists with supposedly disproportionate coercive measures can turn public opinion around into conceding consent.
Or take the ban on smoking in pubs, restaurants and other public places. Initially it was attacked as an unacceptable infringement of people’s ordinary freedom. Although brought in by a Labour government, it was opposed by some prominent Labour politicians on the grounds that for many of their constituents, going down the boozer for a pint and a fag was one of the few pleasures they had in life and taking it away by law was an unwarranted act of government coercion. Few people now, though, would deny the health advantages both to the public at large and to the very people who stood at the bar filling the place with noxious fumes. There’s no campaign I know of for recovering this ‘freedom’.
So it may be that Mr Johnson has cottoned on to the notion that the public can be coerced more than he might have thought or, indeed, would personally like.
To some people, however, taking this lesson from the Covid experience is very dangerous: it risks putting us on a slippery slope towards authoritarian if not totalitarian government. Such government is not interested in doing a two-step with consent: it’s way of governing is to ignore consent and just make sure it is in control of enough force to smash dissent. It’s that slippery slope Hong Kong now appears to be sliding down. There is noble if, perhaps, futile resistance in the old British colony now but the really chilling thought is that with enough coercion, the public can come, tacitly, to ‘consent’ to almost anything.
That is why those who worry about slippery slopes should not be ignored even though some of their concerns might seem bonkers. Obviously, that is not the same as saying we should give equal credence – or indeed any credence - to the idiotic vaccine conspiracy theories.
But how to dance the dance is something we should always be ponfdring. how much should we accept coercion and how ready should we be to resist it?
It’s a question you might keep in mind when eventually you learn whether the Prime Minister will allow you to go on holiday this summer or not.
Let us know what you think.