Sadly there have been many avoidable deaths in this pandemic. Now we hear that Freedom is coming. While retaining his signature incompetence, Boris Johnson’s contribution to the COVID crisis has shifted from lethally misguided to incomprehensible. Some airport manual on leadership appears to have convinced him that he must keep national spirits up with heady optimism and the sort of slogans that defeated the Remainers. His remarkable ability to assert the exact opposite of how he actually proceeds, ‘data not dates’, has given us Freedom Day.
Who can be against Freedom in these dark days of authoritarian governments? Perhaps Johnson cribbed it from Freedom Day, April 27th, the annual South African public holiday to celebrate their first non-racial elections, but I doubt it. On 19 July it won’t be freedom for the hundreds of thousands of immune-suppressed people who have much reduced protection from vaccines and will have to restrict their movements if others go mask-free. It won’t be freedom for unvaccinated young people who find they have long-COVID after a relatively mild initial attack of the virus. And it won’t be freedom for the many, afraid to challenge cavalier unmasked travellers on crowded buses and trains, who would be driven off public transport but for the intervention of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan and other Labour mayors. Nor for those fearful to enter badly ventilated stores and restaurants. It will be freedom for repeated arguments, drunken brawls and unnecessary conflict.
Johnson’s grandiose language, evoking struggles for liberty, as he promises to end compulsory mask-wearing in England does not match the public’s views. They have accepted some compulsion in matters of public health since the 2006 Health Act which “makes it illegal to smoke in all public enclosed or substantially enclosed area and workplaces. The ban includes smoking on vehicles which serve the public and / or are used for work purposes”. Provisions were subsequently tightened and expanded to protect children’s health. Local Councils were made responsible for enforcement but compliance was high without direct compulsion. They public agreed that protecting the health of others was both sensible and right.
The divergence between public opinion and libertarian rhetoric has become so obvious we are into the familiar Johnson phase of backtracking and mixed messaging accompanied by a barrage of cautionary advice from Ministers. After all, one function of law is to settle conflicts and especially to avoid violent forms of dispute settlement such as might be caused by disagreements in public about wearing masks. Mr. Rees-Mogg would perhaps like to return to dueling, maybe in Wetherspoons, but the hope is we will move forward to a less-divided society as the pandemic comes under control.
For the government right now its first problem is that it has repeatedly trumpeted 19 July as the day when any and all restrictions will be lifted. Anything less could prove to be the Johnson betrayal that finally alerted the public to the disaster for the UK that he is. The second problem is that, perhaps not inadvertently, the masks issue has become part of the culture wars fostered by Johnson and is now arousing strong feelings of personal identity. Particularly, it seems, among young men who are notoriously reluctant to wear masks on London’s Underground. Coming from Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, the explanation that the purpose of removing legal restrictions is so we can ‘exercise a degree of personality responsibility and judgement’ beggars belief.
No-one in government, though, seems to want to take masks out of the sacred Tory domain of choice. The very word “choice” is bandied about as if it were a transcendental value in itself irrespective of the true value of what you choose. It has entered the core of Western ideological extremism. It is difficult to say what libertarianism actually is in the minds of the Tory back benches but their current political position puts liberty front and centre. Let’s just say that for them it could mean one or all of the following: free markets, an unbalanced individualism, a belief in seriously reducing State intervention in society, and a blind spot when it comes to social ethics, those obligations we have towards others. We hear little about the ethical decisions and values consonant with a decent society when talking about the mask issue.
Quite simply, wearing a mask in this pandemic is an action which protects the health and wellbeing of others who will be wearing a mask to protect yours. It is not, as government persists in talking about it, primarily a choice between individual protection and ‘getting back to normal’. Nor has the requirement to wear a mask any direct impact on economic success as the Asian countries have demonstrated despite government implications to the contrary. No one in their right mind believes that moral considerations, concern for others, will be a priority for everyone and that is why the public believes there should be some compulsion until the virus is brought under control. Public Health is primarily a matter for the State’s attention. Challenging the ‘mask-free’ (those not exempt for health reasons) in COVID-friendly environments is not the job of tired workers who have no option but to travel to their jobs on public transport.
True freedom requires that we acknowledge that we are essentially social beings formed in dependent communitarian relationships, reliant on each other, not individualist monads with limitless choices. This insight, increasingly missing from modern Britain, is retained in the world religions. The libertarian view of freedom, like Boris Johnson himself, is a seductive counterfeit. Its consequences will soon be appearing as the government’s refusal to take responsibility for a key preventative measure to limit the spread of COVID become apparent.
In all this current blather about Freedom the question that should be asked, and discussed, but won’t be, is “What is Freedom for?” It happens to be a chapter heading in The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of tradition in an Age of Chaos, a much acclaimed book by Sohrab Ahmani, an Iranian-born journalist and convert to Catholicism who confesses to being ‘a public Catholic’ and ‘interrogator of modern certainties’. He adopts this role by asking twelve questions, one per chapter, each linked in an eclectic selection to different thinkers from around the world. “The past”, he writes, “can lend us a hand amid our modern misery, and we can retrace a path out of the current chaos and confusion”. It is an exercise in historical humility. I recommend one chapter a day on the beach – that is if you can manage to get to one.
See TheArticle 16/07/2021