COVID-19 vs liberal values

Where do liberal values stand in a time of national crisis? During a time of crisis or upheaval, the natural instinct of many is to look towards their government and the forces of the state it commands. People look for reassurance and firm direction from the paternalistic state to protect them.

As CODVID-19 has made it’s determined advance across the world, much firmer state direction, than in the UK, has been broadcast to concerned Britons. Chinese propaganda has lauded a massive mobilisation effort where the state has effectively been weaponised to track, quarantine and treat the virus. South Korea’s Government has mobilised an impressive effort against COVID, using round the clock mass testing and an Artificial Intelligence system to drive contact tracing. Both the Chinese and South Korean Governments have authorised the tracing of citizens phones to augment contract tracing to effectively isolate not only those who are confirmed as infected but those at risk from coming in contact with them. The UK Government has hinted that the next phase of its strategy in tackling the virus may include some contact tracing system.

To add to this, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, albeit by force of circumstance, has embraced big state economics. The UK Government has gone into the business of supporting effected industries with public finance. At the stroke of a pen, British railways were temporarily nationalised, which meant somewhat strangely a Tory Government fulfilled a key Labour manifesto pledge. Indeed outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said these measures prove the validity of his economic vision. All of the above presents a unique challenge to Liberalism as an ideology and ourselves as a party in giving a convincing response.

As ever, our party needs to find a middle path between the extremes while keeping in mind political reality. The political fact is that at the moment, the public does support extraordinary state intervention. It is therefore practical and sensible that we back such intervention, as a strictly temporary measure. However, unlike the Labour Party, we should not be as blunt in using these circumstances as a trojan horse for party agendas. There is, however, no harm in being explicit in our beliefs in why we would not support giving the government a blank cheque in addressing the crisis.

Government unaccountability is what led to this government being without a pro-active strategy in addressing the virus, likely with a cost in lives that is yet to be revealed. Because of this, the government has lost the right to govern without parliamentary scrutiny. As such, their suggestion about passing laws that will endow them with law-making powers for up to 2 years, without a need to refer to Parliament, should be resisted at all costs.

On the economic front, we must be prepared for the Labour Party to argue their economic case as proven. We must have our counter case ready to show that a Command Economy is not in the interests of a post-crisis Britain.

* Zachary Barker is a Liberal Democrat member in Bristol West.

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  • China is essentially a dictatorship that already suppresses liberty and is quite willing to put religious minorities into what amount to concentration camps. It also as low investment in public health and low hygiene standards. The Chinese lockdown came after it’s Communist Dictatorship government tried cover up Covid19 and is as much about economic damage limitation as it is health. The question is are we following the Chinese response because it is effective or is it because some people in positions of power are rather too impressed by it? The Chinese government has no qualms what so ever about lying about the coronavirus and shifting blame onto America as its originator or blaming foreign nationals working in China for its continued spread.

  • Peter Martin 1st Apr '20 - 12:54pm

    @ Joe Otten,

    “……should instead have been blown already on projects like rail nationalisation. It is deeply dishonest of them……”

    There’s no dishonesty because, apart from the admin costs of making the change, nationalisation doesn’t cost anything. When 20% or so of the economy, including the railways, were nationalised after WW2 the country was said to be almost bankrupt. That wasn’t really true, but nevertheless the economy wasn’t is good shape. So if it had cost anything it wouldn’t have been possible. Would it? Then it was just a swap of shares for Govt stock. Now, it’s more like the private companies just handing back their franchises when they are no longer profitable.

    “…..if they had had their way would now be much harder if not impossible because we would not have as much if any headroom to borrow.”

    As previously explained they don’t have to borrow anyway. But if they did, their “borrowing” costs are less than 1%, and the Govt has total control over that, at the same time as inflation is 2%. How much “headroom” do they need? And who’s getting the better deal? Borrower or Lender?

  • Peter Martin 1st Apr '20 - 1:20pm

    @ Zachary Barker,

    “……a Command Economy is not in the interests of a post-crisis Britain.”

    Nationalisation is simply the public ownership of shares in railways, banks, the royal mail, telecoms electricity, gas, water supply or whatever we want to own shares in. Ownership of these shares doesn’t turn the UK into a command economy.

    The examples I have given are what I’m sure we all agree were essential services. Naturally if there are profits to be made the private sector is more than happy to own the shares and take the profits. But when things go sour we can’t let the railways not run, we can’t switch off gas and electricity supplies, we can’t let bank customers lose their money which will cause the economy crash, and can’t stop letters being delivered etc because the RM has gone bust.

    So we have to be sure we are being taken for mugs by the owners of the formerly nationalised industries who are, natutrally, more than happy with a ‘privatise the profits socialise the losses’ arrangement.

  • Glenn
    Were the gaps in the American health system responsible for the (H1N1)pdm09 virus?

  • Manafarang
    What as that got do with Covid19 and western countries queuing up to praise and emulate the actions of the Communist dictatorship that runs China? Why are so many otherwise sensible liberal people so touchy about any criticism the Communist dictatorship that runs China. It is not a model of technocratic capitalism. It is an oppressive regime, that brutally supresses minorities, executes more people than the rest of the world combined and that covered up the outbreak in Wuhan allowing Covid19 to spread all over the globe. I would seriously like to know why it is more acceptable to criticise the doubts about lockdown in America or Britain and Sweden’s approach than it is to suggest that taking your lead from the Communist dictatorship that runs China (a dictatorship that already locks-down religious minorities in concentration camps) might not be the best idea or should, at the very least, be debated.

  • Peter Martin 1st Apr '20 - 2:43pm

    @ Joe Otten,

    That’s not a very intelligent comment.

    Obviously if there was a threat to our overall food supply the Govt would be compelled to act. But if, say, your local Tesco went bankrupt and you couldn’t buy food from their supermarket any longer there wouldn’t be any pressing need for the Govt to do anything about it. But if the electricity cable in your street wasn’t supplying you with electricity any longer or the train you normally caught stopped running then there probably would be a need to do something.

    Even for those, such as yourself (?), who have very right wing opinions!

  • Unfortunately Joe Otten hasn’t become immune from the knee jerk anti-Labour virus. He ignores the fact that at times historically the Liberal Party has also advocated some nationalisation. He complains of hundreds of billions of pounds on the debit side, but forgets the asset side.

    If, for example, the government issued bonds to buy the Royal Mail at its current market value of about £2.1bn, it’s true it would have an extra £2.1bn of debt : but it would also have an extra £2.1bn of assets. It’s a mistake to consider just one side of these figures.

    Joe also ignores the true cost of privatisation passed on to the rest of us as consumers. In 2011 when Sir Vincent Cable pushed through privatisation against much party opposition a first class stamp cost 41p. It’s now 76p. Who pays ? Joe Public including Joe Otten does.

    The Royal Mail made £ 240 million profit last year. Much of it went to shareholders not the public. Some also went to the incoming Chief Exec (a Mr Rico Back) who was offered a £ 6 million golden welcome handshake (pre self-isolation), a base salary of £640,000 and a cash pension allowance of 17.5 per cent of base salary…. and a potential annual bonus of 200 per cent of salary. It’s enough to make a fat cat purr… certainly within the context of the Alston Report on Poverty in the UK.

    And what will happen when the Universal Service Guarantee (2011) runs out next year ? Will Alistair Carmichael’s constituency still get a delivery ? Answers on a post card, please, to Councillor Joe Otten.

  • @Peter Martin “Nationalisation is simply the public ownership of shares in railways, banks, the royal mail, telecoms electricity, gas, water supply or whatever we want to own shares in. Ownership of these shares doesn’t turn the UK into a command economy.”

    Except it’s not in the UK. History shows us that when HMG owns shares in businesses, it meddles.

    In Germany that would be the case – as we see with DB, which is a private company that just happens to have the Federal Government as the shareholder. But not here.

  • @David Raw “If, for example, the government issued bonds to buy the Royal Mail at its current market value of about £2.1bn, it’s true it would have an extra £2.1bn of debt : but it would also have an extra £2.1bn of assets. It’s a mistake to consider just one side of these figures.”

    The cash repayable by the government remains at £2.1bn. Whether a declining business like Royal Mail will still be worth £2.1bn when the coupon on the bonds becomes due is unlikely.

  • Peter Martin 1st Apr '20 - 6:14pm

    @ TCO,

    The share price of Royal Mail has declined since privatisation. If it carries on like this the Govt will be able to renationalise out of petty cash.

    The problem for us is, as David Raw points out, that the price of our stamps has risen by 85% since privatisation but the share price, which could well affect our pension funds, has fallen by getting on for the same amount. So, ironically, the more it is run with the interests of the shareholders, rather than the stamp buyers in mind, the less attractive it is to either group. Even Mrs Thatcher baulked at privatising the Royal Mail. The evidence so far is that she was quite right about that!

  • “The cash repayable by the government remains at £2.1bn.” Sounds a long term bargain if inflation rises under this incompetent lot, and we could certainly do with a bit of German meddling on the testing front in the UK.

    Has anybody heard how Danny boy is getting by in China ? A real bonus that he ran down the social care sector in the old UK. Definitely worth a knighthood though even Jeremy Hunt thinks he went too far.

    “Social care funding cut by a third since 2010, ADASS survey
    … › news › 2015/06 › social-care-funding-cut…
    4 Jun 2015 – Local authority funding for social care services fell by nearly one-third over the last parliament, an analysis by the Association of Directors of …

  • @David Raw “we could certainly do with a bit of German meddling on the testing front in the UK.”

    You’re missing the point. The Germans DON’T meddle in their nationalised industries such as DB. They are to all intents and purposes private companies, with a CEO and board payed at private company rates, where the shareholder benefit accrues tot he German government. They are totally hands off.

  • Some Lib Dems give the impression that they are besotted with the concept of having liberal values as though the possession of such values in some way marks them apart from normal human beings. Labour supporters have a similar tendency but their case involves uttering the phrase “The most vulnerable in our society,” in every other sentence. As a floating voter who has no allegiance to any party but votes according to judgements I make, I find such tribal utterings very strange.

    That does not mean that I lack values or compassion, but these are ingrained in my unconsciousness and guide every action by being integral with my identity, personality and spirituality. I very much doubt if I am unique. Most people, and in this context, I include most voters, do not go through life measuring up their reactions and actions to some list of values published in some document. They have their own values based on experience, up-bringing and education.

    In the current crisis when urgent action is paramount, uncertainties and problems abound and mistakes are going to be inevitable, it seems irrelevant to insist on viewing progress through the prism of Lib Dem values or any other, for that matter. People are trying very hard to do what is obviously necessary.

  • Richard Underhill 1st Apr '20 - 8:59pm

    So why politicians of other parties try to steal our name?

  • (there are length limitations – I had to cut a bit saying: yes, but stay at home till we have enough ventilators)
    Basically, if there is a place for liberalism at all – actually let’s stop speaking Latin and start speaking English – if there is a place for freedom-ism at all, it’s not just because it coincidentally gets the right results uncannily often “oh wow, conveniently, the way to reduce drug deaths is to legalise cannabis” or “oh wow, conveniently, letting people run more or less the businesses they and their customers want is the best route to prosperity”, or “oh wow, conveniently, setting standard basic conditions for workers is more efficient (and realistic) than both sides going lawyered-up into contract negotiations”. The other parties (or even the governments of places like Singapore or Hong Kong) can do pragmatism too and there is no reason for a liberal party to exist if it doesn’t go beyond that.

    No, if there is a place for liberalism or “freedom-ism”, it’s because freedom is worth something intrinsically. The US state of New Hampshire has the motto “Live Free or Die”. Obviously that’s nicer as a “guiding star” than an absolute rule but people on the ground in politics at the moment need to be at least willing to say that certain things are worth (a small risk of) dying for, such as the right to go to work, the right to visit family members once in a while, the right to have a bit of footie on TV, and a beer in the pub – at the same time as being part of a national conversation that says “actually having to go along with wearing something over my nose and mouth on the train is not such a big deal and I feel my freedom isn’t impaired by that.”

    Would we keep 10 million workers at home for 3 months to save one life? If not one life then would we do it for 1000 lives, or 100000 lives? If the economic damage means 10 million people retiring a year later than they otherwise would, is it justifiable to save 1 person, or 1000 people, or 100000 people. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but a person’s life is on average maybe only about 1000 months long – I wouldn’t trade an extra year before retirement for a 1/1000 chance of dying, I’d rather “live free” an extra year and hope to escape the risk of dying.

    If liberal politicians can’t even put their reputation on the chopping block and make some of those basic points then yes, liberalism is finished – because nobody actually believes in it.

  • “South Korea’s Government has mobilised an impressive effort against COVID, using round the clock mass testing and an Artificial Intelligence system to drive contact tracing.” – you know what, most of South Korean businesses still open. They acted fast and hard, they did not wait until case count reaches X level or death toll reaches Y level to move from one phase to the next. They have been building up testing capacity and PPE all the way back to January so that when the sudden and large initial outbreak happened, they were able to mass test people immediately with facing test kit shortage, and using technology to trace infected cases to 3rd or 4th level of contact, not just direct contacts. They were also quick to close schools/unis, to quarantine incoming arrivals, and to quarantine locations with infections. They even sent the infected locations to citizens via mobile phone text messages.

    If there is a liberal gold standard model for handling a pandemic, it is the South Korean approach. Currently, most of its businesses still open, I repeat.

  • “The UK Government has hinted that the next phase of its strategy in tackling the virus may include some contact tracing system” – oh man, this is actually one of the first things to do when the first few cases were reported. It should have been done well before any quarantine/lockdown is considered. Again, the approach of waiting for case count to reach X and death toll to reach Y to move from one phase to the next has been rendered useless.

  • There are some measures that could have been done from late-January or early-February:
    – Stockpiling test kits, PPE and ventilators (Britain failed massively). This should have been done even before the first cases outside China were reported.
    – Introduce technology-based of tracing cases via mobile phones and credit cards.
    – Enforce mandatory quarantine on all international arrivals from China (and then South Korea, Italy, Spain… depending on the development of the pandemic). This is what Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia and NZ did very early.
    – Test and trace the first cases to the 4th or 5th level of contact.
    – Targeted quarantine of locations that report infected cases (e.g. buildings, neighbourhoods…).
    – Boost airport/train station screening.
    – Ban mass gatherings of over 250 people (the limit can be further reduced depending on situation). Sport stadiums and theatres and concerts should have been closed before 1st March – these are by definition mass gatherings.
    – Close schools (high schools and universities can be closed immediately). South Korea closed schools before 1st March.

    Had we done all of these stuffs before 1st March, restaurants and most other “non-essential” businesses would have remained open by now. All European countries have failed, and now they had to resort to the Chinese solution.

  • Zachary Barker 8th Apr '20 - 9:41pm


    “If there is a liberal gold standard model for handling a pandemic, it is the South Korean approach”

    I guess how that depends on how one views liberalism. In terms of pro activeness and evidence based policy it surely is. However there are various parts of South Korea’s strategy which sometimes seem to challenge liberal values, if not outright contradict them. The use of Artificial Intelligence that links into South Koreans citizens smart phones for instance to assist with Contact Tracing springs to mind. This system and those who work with it also have direct access to the previous medical histories of the same citizens.

    This is the point I was trying to make, but admittedly could have articulated better. Some compromise or temporary suspension of liberal values would arguably need to be carried out in order to support a strategy that resembles the South Korean and certainly Chinese strategies.

    My article was meant as a spark for discussion about how far we should go in this compromise, and whether the price would be worth it if it mean’t the earlier eradication of CODIV 19 from the UK.

    Joe Otten

    “This article reads as a plea – and not a strong one – to regard our values as still relevant. The other parties might as easily do the same. I honestly don’t think that is what the public are looking for right now. Coming together to support our communities is what we need to be focussing on.”

    Well the article was mean’t to highlight the point about the importance of our values and the broader one of how much we should embrace big state mobilisation, and think very carefully about the costs of doing so. That is our unique selling point; Labour automatically back state action for public good, while our party with good reason ponders the wider implications of such action.

    Having said that, yes I am inclined to agree, right now the best that we can do is to help support our communities. But keep in mind that other parties are doing the same and will likely claim credit for it too. Hence the reason to try to think; what else can we offer the public for now and the future?

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