Moral campaigners and social control freaks are trying to use the current crisis to force through more restrictions on how we live.
The Coronavirus shutdown is pretty much unprecedented in modern times – and even beyond. World War 2 saw major restrictions on movements and individual freedoms, but the shops and the pubs stayed open. This is something very different, and it is understandably taking some getting used to. The shutdown took a while to come to the UK and was preceded by the unusual – perhaps unprecedented – sight of all sides of the political argument demanding more restrictions on movements. It was a demand that came about because the public, unfortunately, showed that it couldn’t be relied upon to do the right thing without laws forcing them to do so. Indeed, why would they, with conflicting arguments, conflicting claims and no actual enforcement? Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, and that’s certainly what we now have.
I certainly won’t defend those who flout the rules with idiotic parties, public gatherings and the like – these dicks are helping prolong the misery and the danger for everyone else. Even those who are not deliberately ignoring the restrictions often seem to struggle to get their heads around what is sensible – people who can’t give you personal space while you are making essential trips outside, for instance. But on the whole, it seems that society has adapted as best it can to the strange new world that we find ourselves in.
But for some, this is more an opportunity than a curse. We’re already seeing that a certain type of police officer – in some cases, entire local forces – are absolutely loving this, getting drunk with the power that you suspect they have always craved, and taking advantage of the new laws to push people around. As I write this, the Northamptonshire police chief has appeared at a press conference telling people that his force won’t yet be patrolling supermarkets and checking that no one is putting ‘non-essential’ items in their baskets, but that they will do so if the public doesn’t behave (by which I assume he means stop buying things that are pleasurable rather than the bare basics to stay alive with). The law doesn’t state that booze, or fags, or chocolate or anything else that might be seen as ‘non-essential’ items are banned – indeed, off-licences are on the list of shops that can remain open, suggesting an understanding that people might want to have the odd drink during this difficult time – but certain police officers seem determined to use the shutdown to invent their own laws and push forward their own morality – and what might seem to be a rogue outburst is often someone simply testing the waters, and seeing how far they can push things.
No doubt some coppers feel like big men as they stop and question people about whether their trip to the shop is entirely necessary (and given that delivery slots are like gold dust right now, I’m guessing most trips to supermarkets are not being done for the fun of it). We’ve always had power-hungry little Hitlers who like to stretch their authority. We are still far – though not, perhaps, as far as we might like – from a police state in Britain, but you can tell that there are some cops who relish the prospect of asking people for their papers and questioning why they are going about their business a little too much for comfort, and they are not the sort of people who we should feel happy about having vaguely defined and flexible powers.
I’m not arguing that in these extraordinary times, some restrictions on movements are not needed. Indeed, the people being sent on their way while sunbathing in parks probably deserve a cuff round the ear for being self-centred dicks. But the rules generally need to be enforced with a light touch – especially when they are rather vague and haven’t been explained clearly – or else they will start to appear oppressive and excessive.
But the real problem with emergency laws is that authoritarian organisations – the police, politicians and all manner of petty, autocratic licencing authorities and pressure groups – adore them. For these groups, there is no such thing as too many laws, too many rules. They always want more, and want to micro-manage our lives – for our own good, of course – and this current situation is a great opportunity for them to flex their muscles and indulge their despotic tendencies without anyone noticing.
We’ve already seen newspaper columnists floating the idea of stopping people drinking alcohol during the lockdown and beyond, while a new and mysteriously financed prohibitionist lobby group – One Year, No Beer- is trying to encourage people to stop drinking to “support the NHS”, at a time when pubs and breweries already face a bleak future. At the same time, we are seeing fretting about people drinking too much while in lockdown, with the suggestion that alcohol sales be banned right now for the sake of health and to prevent domestic abuse. We’ve seen the anti-sugar lobby egging on the authorities to restrict sales of chocolate and sweets during the lockdown, and presumably then beyond. Anti-porn campaigners are demanding more restrictions on the availability of adult material, based on unsubstantiated claims that the availability of PornHub and such, while people are locked in together, will lead to (again) domestic violence. Anti-gambling groups are expressing concerns that the locked-in will become addicted to bingo and such, and so are demanding new restrictions. Anti-smoking groups have insisted that tobacco products – be they cigarettes or vapes – be banned, lest they affect afflicted people’s health even more (there’s no evidence that they do, but never mind). Essentially, every prohibitionist lobby is working very hard right now to get their agenda into what will become the new normal.
Let’s be clear – This shutdown is not going to end any time soon. We’re potentially talking months. Plenty of time for the new restrictions to start to feel normal. Plenty of time for any lifting of the new laws to not take us back to where we were a couple of months ago, but instead leave in place various new powers and bureaucratic rules – some of which we might not even know about yet. We’ve already had threats that if the public don’t behave, even more stringent laws may be needed. Don’t doubt for a minute that there will be assorted lobby groups pushing their agendas on the back on these restrictions, all claiming that their desired prohibitions are a necessary requirement for social stability. And once this is all over, these same groups will be actively lobbying to either hold onto their gains, or push forward their ideals to a government that will suddenly be able to impose swingeing new restrictions that might have previously seemed beyond the pale, all while pretending to be liberalising.
If this sounds like a hysterical conspiracy theory, remember that in 1915, emergency wartime measures were passed that required pubs to close at 3pm until 6.30. It was stated that these rules would only last as long as the first world war, but instead, they stayed in force until 1988. Pubs shutting down for the afternoon became the norm, and everyone accepted it. And that is hardly the only ‘temporary’ law that managed to become permanent – many a law has been passed with the claim that it would be reassessed in a year, only for it to remain in force, unquestioned, even if it spectacularly fails to do what it was supposed to do. Rules on violent porn, dangerous dogs, minimum alcohol pricing and more have stayed in place even after being shown to be spectacularly ill-thought-out and ineffective.
Temporary Emergency Provisions have the unfortunate habit of sticking around long after the temporary emergency is over. We’re living in unique times, and we’re all making sacrifices for the greater good. But we still need to stay alert, or else we will find the post-Corona world a very different, far more oppressive place than the one we had previously lived in.