Britain’s Safetyist Future? | Harrison Pitt
“Safety” should not be a dirty word. It is necessary for families to protect their homes from intruders, for countries to deter enemies by preparing military defence budgets and even for world leaders to plan for the possibility of alien invasion.
“Safetyism”, however, was coined by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff to describe a more sinister attitude taking root in modern culture: the belief that safety is not simply one good among many, but a sacred value that should always trump competing practical and moral concerns. In The Coddling of the American Mind, published in 2018, Haidt and Lukianoff set out to document how a misguided culture of safetyism had crept into various aspects of American life, from education to parenting, with disastrous consequences for children’s social development, emotional strength and intellectual maturity.
But even the book’s most sobering revelations about the rise of safetyism appear mild compared to the world we are now busily creating three years later. In the age of Covid-19, safetyism has gone from being a harmful feature of modern childrearing to the governing mentality of our societies. Small businesses have been permanently wrecked, social life cancelled and families deprived of the company of loved ones – all in the name of ensuring “safety” from the risk of coronavirus.
Boris Johnson makes no secret of the fact he is a recent convert to the cause of safetyism: “We’ve got to do whatever it takes to protect life in this country,” he tells Robert Peston. Throughout the pandemic, those three little words “whatever it takes” have eclipsed the need to test the wisdom of lockdown against a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. At least to those in government, the words also serve as an excuse to ignore the growing list of studies which indicate lockdowns do not even reduce infections or protect lives in the first place. But the merits of lockdown aside, there is no doubt that the policy’s popularity with the public – the widespread sense that the government had no choice but to imprison us for our own good – is a crowning triumph for safetyism in Britain.
Many reassure themselves that the success of safetyism, with its bulldozing of human liberty and social life, will wane as the threat of Covid-19 recedes. “Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures,” it is said. “And once we are past the horrors of Covid-19, we can drop those measures and go back to normal.” But what if it is wrong to view lockdown as a temporary aberration? If the safetyist argument is accepted once, what is to prevent state officials from seducing us again into a regime of protective tyranny? Unless the underlying logic is more thoroughly challenged, the last fifteen months will not be remembered as a precautionary one-off. They could be regarded as Britain’s first step towards an effective Safetyist State, where mass social control is the established norm and freedom must justify itself before a blinkered medical autocracy.
Of course, there has been no shortage of moments in British history when liberty has taken a back seat to security, both at war and in peacetime. In 1794, spooked by the epidemic of revolution in France and unrest at home, William Pitt the Younger suspended habeas corpus for a year to secure “the peace and the laws and liberties of this kingdom”. During the Second World War, Churchill’s government exercised strict control over the British press on the grounds that, at a time of existential conflict, “truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” More recently, after the 7/7 bombing attacks, Tony Blair increased the lawful detention time of suspected terrorists held without charge or trial.
While intelligent people can argue about the need for all these historic decisions, there is no question that lockdown is an unprecedented phenomenon in Britain, uniquely crushing to liberty and mental health. Lockdowns are also much more severe in terms of their social, economic and educational impact than anything ever dreamt up by Pitt, Churchill or Blair. Before March 2020, despite plenty of historic dangers to national security and public health, lockdowns were unthinkable: they did not feature in the UK’s pre-pandemic preparedness plans, just as they had not been called upon to contain previous pandemics. Now they have not only entered conventional wisdom, but become part of our national toolkit for dealing with threats. Can governments be trusted not to reach for this new, clumsy hammer in future?
This is the real significance of Boris Johnson’s panicked move to postpone Freedom Day by another month. Viewed only in economic and social terms, the decision is too easily excused as “just four more weeks” or “not too bad, as long as we can still hit the pub or the cinema.” But what the government’s U-turn most importantly demonstrates is the abiding appeal of safetyism once it burrows its way into a nation’s collective mentality. While undoubtedly a nightmare for business and a sad day for engaged couples, more than anything else it is a potential first glimpse into lockdown’s dystopian legacy.
Indeed, the government’s own explanation for the delay is a sure sign that safetyism has a promising future. Ministers are not pointing us to facts and figures which, in their proper context, put the wisdom of deferring liberty beyond a reasonable doubt. If anything, as David Paton says, “we are in a dramatically better position than the government expected back in February” in terms of infections and hospital admissions. Instead, the rationale for Johnson’s decision is the apparent need to wait for more data. It used to be that tyranny had to make its case before freedom; but in a culture that has embraced safetyism, government officials force freedom to shoulder the burden of proof. Liberty is no longer the default condition of adults living in Britain, but a privilege granted at the whim of public health bureaucrats, depending on whether we are trusted not to make them regret it.
Dominic Raab insists that the government does not want to “yo-yo in and out of measures.” But the Tory government’s own safetyist logic, until it is ditched, makes a future spent bouncing between various shades of unfreedom inevitable. Our institutions will always be faced with public health risks, both new and old and of varying degrees of severity. Since March 2020, this government’s strategy has been to outlaw most of what makes life valuable so as to make it “safe” – not only when they are convinced the data justifies such a decision, but also when it is felt they lack the data to justify anything else.
Even if “Freedom Day” does go ahead on July 19, who is to say there will be no Covid-19 resurgence this winter? That we will not have to go through our fair share of miserable flu seasons, not to mention new pathogens sent by nature to bedevil us in the future? The likes of Chris Whitty are already acknowledging the potential need to use lockdowns to protect the NHS from future crises, as if the only way to alleviate hospital pressure is to bankrupt the economy and plunge your population into isolation and misery. Until the day risk is abolished from the world, this government’s safetyist ideology will condemn us to more and more yo-yoing chaos if it is allowed to rule decision-making without challenge.
The only way to consign lockdowns to the dustbin of recent history is to rediscover the intelligent, proportionate approach to risk that, only fifteen months ago, we all practised without noticing it. In times of uncertainty, it may be easier to defend top-down measures promising to ensure security; but the practical and moral bankruptcy of state-enforced safetyism soon becomes apparent, as society slides into a bewildering, arbitrary tyranny whose benefits are at best questionable. Safety will always be an important human value, but it becomes a menace to life and liberty when it is worshipped at the expense of everything else.