COVID-19 Will Eb and Flow, but Liberty Will Likely Forever Perish | Jake Painter

The scene is Britain in 1974 and the IRA are stepping up their terror bombing campaign on mainland Britain. Continuing cries for justice and retribution against the perpetrators are deafening; both within the House of Commons and without. The legislative response came in the form of the Prevention of Terrorism act. As well as finally naming the IRA as an illegal organisation, it gave the police the power to hold suspected terrorists for 48 hours without charge, plus a further 5 days with the consent of the Home Secretary. In addition to this, he was given the power to bar Northern Irish subjects from setting foot in mainland Britain; which was controversial since it essentially gave the Home Secretary the right to curtail internal freedom of movement for British citizens. This was all of course meant to be temporary and these “unprecedented and draconian measures” were originally only supposed to run for six months, renewable for another 6 months by affirmative order. It was to be anything but temporary and the act would be renewed annually for the next 25 years until Tony Blair replaced it with his own set of anti-terror laws, imposing a seven-day limit on detention without charge and even pushed for 28 days before the Lords put an end to that.

If this all sounds eerily familiar, it is because (broadly speaking) we are living in the same situation today. When Boris Johnson brought in his piece of legislation to deal with his own perceived crisis, he too said that the Coronavirus act 2020 was renewable every 6 months but was strictly temporary. Two extensions of the Coronavirus act later and I am beginning to feel – much like with the Prevention of Terrorism act – that this is going to be anything but temporary. To paraphrase Mark Twain here, if history doesn’t repeat it certainly rhymes. There are more than one similarities between the two pieces of legislation however. When the Prevention of Terrorism act was being drawn up the police protested and said they already had plenty of powers to deal with IRA terrorism as it was. Again though, public opinion was so fierce in the direction that more needed to be done that the government’s hand was forced to a large degree. With Boris Johnson it was much the same; with him initially taking the stance that Britain was a mature liberal democracy and doesn’t need any lockdowns but was quickly forced into these draconian measures from within his own party and by the avalanche of public opinion. Admittedly including myself (initially) for my sins.

In addition to this; Johnson already had the 1984 Public Health Act to deal with a serious infectious disease outbreak, which stipulated that a doctor must notify the “proper officer” within their local authority of any individual who has a notifiable disease (a disease that is required by law to be reported). Instead of just relying on this piece of sensible legislation, Johnson instead chose to pervert it and use it as a basis for the Coronavirus act 2020; even though the 1984 act only pertains to restricting the liberty of an individual who is actually infected and says nothing about restricting the liberty of individuals who are healthy. As Lord Sumption stated in a Telegraph podcast in September 2020, this effectively means the lockdown measures we have been following for over a year are in effect ultra-virus or “beyond the powers”.

Another fundamental point here though is that it’s never just the problem that the erosion of civil liberties happens unnecessarily in the first place, it is also the problem that the erosion is rarely ever reversed when the perceived crisis is gone. To look at a contemporary example we need only to look at our neighbours across the channel. When Macron brought France out of its 2 year state of emergency in 2017 (it had been introduced in the first place after a string of terrorist attacks in 2015) he introduced a controversial new anti-terror law. In the bill; Macron allowed for police to carry on conducting random identity checks, gave the state more powers to put citizens posing “a serious threat” under house arrest or restrict them to certain areas so that they can have a professional/social life. In effect, the state of emergency never ended; it was merely transferred into different pieces of legislation. This is the exact fear I have with the current situation surrounding COVID-19. Whether we as a nation can overcome the physiological damage the lockdowns and restrictions have bestowed upon us I am not sure; but if we do and nominally come out of lockdown and scrap the Coronavirus act 2020, the powers the act gave the government will likely just be transferred into different legislation. 

So how does this end? How can this all end at all? For that we need to again look back through history. The debate around ID cards has been around long before Tony Blair tried to conjure them up in the 2000s. Indeed, we used to have them for a brief time in this country during the Second World War but for a short time afterwards. Their effectiveness during the war was effectively none existent (they were actually introduced by the department of Health to better organise food rationing and direct key workers to war industries) but were particularly unnecessary after the wars end, yet the Labour government under Clement Attlee and then the Conservative government under Winston Churchill decided to keep them around anyhow. ID cards were only ever abolished because of a ruling by Lord Justice Goddard. In this case a motorist was stopped and asked to show his ID card, even though he had not committed any offence. Goddard decided that even though the letter of the law allowed for the police to act in this way, he decided that it should not be so and the motorist was let off. The newly elected government under Churchill was forced to act upon this and days after this ruling (on the 22nd of February 1952), ID cards were abolished.

The lesson to take from here is that no amount of compliance and good behaviour will get us out of this mess. Whether or not the crisis warrants it or not, if the government wishes to hang on to its draconian powers, it will do so. The only way we as a society will regain our liberty is if enough people say “whilst I recognise that this is the law, it should not be the law” and do not comply as a result. Some will retort by stating “well if we say this about one law, we can say that about any other law we don’t like!”. In theory that is true, but I would say there is a stark difference between laws that steamroll civil liberties and laws that stop you from smoking a bit of weed or paying your taxes. Opinion polling unfortunately shows that the British public at large are largely all too willing to comply but there is a reason why I titled this article “liberty will Likely Perish” not “Liberty will Perish”. There is a way out, it just takes enough people to make a stand on it.

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