With Freedom Comes Responsibility | Dr. Rakib Ehsan

Some people have to learn the hard way – that with freedom comes responsibility. While most Britons took notice and respected official advice on social distancing, an irresponsible minority continued to place their individual desires over the broader collective good. The Prime Minister, top government scientific experts, and NHS officials have repeatedly urged people to follow understandable advice on avoiding social gatherings and non-essential travel. People were given a chance to behave in a socially responsible manner in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Unfortunately, a sizeable minority wilfully ignored such advice and continued business as usual. The PM was left with no choice but to provide a robust political response. This response included significant restrictions on leaving home, fines for those defying social distancing measures, vesting the police with the power to break social gatherings, and the ordered closing of shops selling non-essential goods (such as luxury electronic products).

So, how have the British public reacted to the new broader measures, which have supposedly converted our liberal democratic system into an authoritarian police state? A snap poll by YouGov of 2,788 respondents showed that 93% of the British public supported the raft of new measures (with 76% strongly supporting the restrictions). Only 4% of the public opposed the introduction of the new measures (2% somewhat oppose, 2% strongly oppose). Essentially, we have a PM that initially placed trust in the people and advised them – on numerous occasions – to respect social distancing measures and avoid public gatherings. In response to the socially irresponsible behaviour witnessed in the middle of the worst health crisis for generations, the PM has introduced robust, tighter measures – which command mass public approval. The high level of public support is based on the wider acknowledgement that the PM did not want to introduce these drastic measures but was left with little choice.

To frame the government’s management of the coronavirus outbreak as the actions of an authoritarian dictatorship is outrage politics on steroids. Along with the host of other smears, the term “dictator” is being drained of its historical significance and weight. It is disrespectful to those who have endured the untold human misery and suffering caused by authoritarian dictatorships – both past and present. Looking to take advantage of the uncertainties and insecurities brought on by this deadly virus, about which we still know little, conspiratorialists of different shades have been given a confidence boost. This included the creation of the social media hashtag #BorisTheButcher, with far-left ideologues advancing the view that the Johnson administration was not interested in protecting the sick and vulnerable under his response to the coronavirus pandemic. Tantamount to accusing the democratically-elected UK Government of ‘planned genocide’, mass deaths of the disabled and immunocompromised under a global pandemic would apparently be considered a ‘great thing’ in conservative circles, as these fellow citizens are supposedly viewed as ‘a strain and a nuisance to the market’.

So, to what extent are such anti-Conservative sentiments reflected in wider public attitudes towards the government and its key members?

Photo by Number 10 on Flickr.

A YouGov poll a fortnight ago showed that the majority of the British public – 53% – had confidence in the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. In addition to this, 52% believed that the government, along with public health authorities, were providing enough information about the coronavirus. This was followed by an IPSOS MORI poll last week showing the Conservatives polling at an astonishing 52% – a full 22 percentage points ahead of the Labour Party. A survey last week asked the British public whether they had confidence in the decision-making of a number of high-profile figures. 53% had confidence in the PM in terms of making the right decision over the coronavirus outbreak – providing him with a net positive rating of +14. The only other cabinet member with a higher net positive rating was newly-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak. The highest positive net ratings for individuals included in the survey, were for Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty (+23) and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (+22). Perhaps not a country which has fallen out of love with experts, but rather one that has little time for pseudo-economists who keeping making woefully inaccurate macro-economic predictions.

When Johnson became PM in July 2019, only a third of the public had a favourable opinion of him, with 54% holding an unfavourable view – meaning he found himself deep in negative territory with a net rating of -21. Even after delivering the largest Conservative majority following last December’s General Election, PM Johnson’s favourability rating remained in negative territory (-11). Latest figures show there has been a serious shift in public approval, with 55% of the public now having a favourable opinion of the PM, with just over third (35%) having an unfavourable opinion. This leaves the PM very much in positive territory, with a net rating of +20.

Further proof that Twitter is not the country. Far from it. And in these troubling and challenging times, much of the British public is rallying around the PM and other key members in his administration.

Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. Follow him on Twitter: @rakibehsan

Photo by Sergey on Flickr. 

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