DAN HODGES: Fools cheering for their own imprisonment

DAN HODGES: Fools cheering for their own imprisonment

March 29, 2020

DAN HODGES: Fools cheering for their own imprisonment – and calling Boris timid – risk unleashing forces deadlier than the virus

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It’s an awful Bill,’ a Tory MP told me, a day after voting through the Coronavirus Act. ‘It’s utterly tragic something like this has passed the House of Commons. But we had no choice. Boris had no choice. This is a real public health crisis.’ Unfortunately, this pragmatic analysis of the most draconian piece of legislation to enter the UK statute book in a time of peace was lost amidst the tumult.

Boris had not gone far enough, the mob howled. Boris had not gone fast enough. As Corbynite polemicist Owen Jones wrote: ‘Never thought I’d be relieved to be placed under house arrest along with millions of people under a police state by a Right-wing Tory government.’

Jones was partially joking. But his humour exposes a wider truth. We were quick to condemn the crude authoritarianism of Putin, or the constitutional vandalism of Trump. Right up until the moment a potentially deadly virus reared its ugly epidemiological head.

People come out onto the street in Woodford Green, London, to clap for the NHS

At which point our words of censure were immediately replaced by desperate appeals for a man of iron to ride up on his white charger, lock us in our homes and make the big, bad pandemic disappear before bedtime.

Prior to being laid low by his Covid-19 nemesis, Boris had made mistakes. As I wrote last week, much of the Government’s coronavirus communication has been shambolic.

Elements of its distancing strategy – such as the decision to banish gatherings of more than two people in parks, but allow them in call centres and building sites – have defied logic.

But the past few days have seen the development of a new and potentially dangerous narrative. The idea the Prime Minister’s personal political ideology is unnecessarily putting the health and safety of the nation in jeopardy.

‘Johnson’s libertarian views behind hesitancy to lock down Britain’ was the headline in an article penned last week for the NBC news website.

In it his former mayoral adviser Guto Harri revealed: ‘He’s not some anarchist libertarian, but he does approach things on the basis that you really have to set the bar quite high to justify the state getting involved in people’s everyday lives. It’s not an absolute, but he does have to be persuaded that drastic measures are justified.’

A police vehicle moves along a Glasgow street on Saturday to enforce the UK’s lockdown

A reluctance to invoke drastic legislation. A high bar for state suppression of the rights of the individual. This time last month these would have been unimpeachable attributes in any mainstream British leader. Actually, they would simply have represented a bench-mark for basic competence.

But to some people these are now the hallmarks of a 20th Century British Pétain, leading – or vacillating and appeasing – the United Kingdom towards destruction.

‘Confused, dangerous, flippant,’ goaded the Guardian, gleefully reporting ‘how the rest of the world pans the PM’s handling of coronavirus’. As an example, it quoted the Irish Times, and its barb ‘Boris Johnson is gambling with the health of his citizens’.

This is the point we have reached. Or been stampeded to. A moment in our history where reticence at turning one of the world’s leading democracies into a police state is derided as confused flippancy.

Anyone who sat through Boris’s announcement of a UK-wide ‘lockdown’ on Monday evening will have seen his critics are absolutely right. Each word he uttered did indeed cut across every fibre of his being.

And thank God for that. Thank God we do have a Prime Minister who agonises before locking his people into their own homes. Who defers and defers again until reluctantly ordering the forces of the State to descend on those having picnics, or playing football with their friends.

Britain has recorded more than 2,500 new cases of coronavirus in the past 24 hours

The fight against coronavirus is literally a life-and-death battle. It has to be waged with every means at the Government’s disposal. The measures outlined last week are a necessary evil.

But make no mistake, they are evil. And those cheering their own imprisonment, and attacking Boris for his perceived timidity, need to realise they are in danger of unleashing forces far more deadly than even the most lethal pandemic.

Just how much alacrity do we want our leaders to display when discarding our fundamental freedoms? Contrary to the narrative, Britain has introduced a nationwide lockdown earlier in the virus cycle than Italy.

The Irish government only announced the closure of its own clubs, restaurants and theatres on Tuesday. Boris may have not moved as fast as his critics would like, but he’s moved at a pace commensurate with the obligations of his office.

And those critics still fail to gasp the enormity of what has been unfolding around them. In the past 14 days we have seen the cancellation of important national and regional elections. The suspension of jury trials.

The power for police and border force officials to incarcerate innocent people in ‘appropriate isolation facilities’ and close the borders. The suspension of Parliament.

Had Boris Johnson attempted any of this even a month ago he would have been condemned as a dictator, and dragged before the Supreme Court. But this morning the same people who would have led the charge against his despotism are vilifying him for indecision.

Speaking to a No 10 adviser – one of a number who are putting their own health on the line by remaining in an office that has become Westminster’s ground zero for the outbreak – they explained how the PM came to rationalise his decision to incarcerate Britain.

An 18-year-old suffering from COVID-19 is rushed through a hospital in Milan, Italy

‘He realised this is a moment that defies politics,’ they explained. ‘His instincts may be liberal, but he understands these are extraordinary times. You can’t be ideological. You just have to do what has to be done.’

Again, there was a time such pragmatism would have been lauded. But not now. We do not want pragmatists. Or even populists. We want authoritarians. Or a single authoritarian. Our own British Strongman who will kill the virus in our midst, no matter what the cost to inconvenient concepts such as personal liberty, and justice and parliamentary democracy.

Last week I was talking to a Minister who is already starting to turn his attention to the public inquiry he believes will inevitably follow the conclusion of the Covid-19 crisis. He was confident the Government’s handling would ultimately be vindicated.

But when that inquiry comes, we should not simply look at the role of the Government. We also need to take a long hard look at ourselves.

In particular, we should examine the ease with which, when crisis came, we found ourselves so willing and able to dispense with fundamental values that have bound our society for centuries. Because rest assured, others will have noted it.

Over the past week Boris’s critics have rounded on him. ‘He’s no Churchill!’ they have taunted. Perhaps they are right. But he’s proved he’s no Hitler either. And at some point in the future we will realise that matters a whole lot more.

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