Why this is the toughest post-war challenge to liberalism

The coronavirus holds a firm grip around the neck of liberty in this new world we have found for ourselves in. No longer can we shop, gather, meet family or friends, embrace those we love. We are living within the tight confines of the perfect dystopian novel.

Although these measures are paramount to people’s survival and the continuation of our public services, they must only serve short-term survival, not the long-term rule. Indeed, many of these global measures look to be the tools of authoritarianism, for example in China ( and Israel as well), who are using the location of one’s phone to monitor compliance to quarantine. Even within the EU, Viktor Orban of Hungary has been granted the right to rule indefinitely by decree, excusing it as a response to coronavirus.

I wish to clarify at this point that I am not predicting a ruthless rise of Johnson to ‘Supreme Chancellor’ or anything of the sort, but that the Liberal Democrats must push-back against the automatic response to the crisis, authoritarianism. Many claims these more extreme measures are necessary, to ensure the safety of those around said person, however once left unchecked, we may find such measures normalised following the defeat of the virus.

Britain has a long and proud history of civil liberties prevailing against power, from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the Equal Rights Act of 2010. During these constraining times, it is vital we hold firm upon this bedrock of liberty, rather than succumbing to the temptation of stringent security. The Liberal Democrats must serve as this bastion of liberty in the UK once the virus ends, in the face of resurgent protectionism and authoritarianism.

Despite not having an elected leader until 2021 *sigh*, our essentially liberal message must serve as the liberal light at the end of an authoritarian tunnel. An authoritarian tunnel which must serve as a blip in British history, rather than a new norm

* Peter Cocks is a LD member and activist in Guildford, and will soon be studying History and Political Science at McGill University, Montreal

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  • Little Jackie Paper 8th Apr '20 - 6:51pm

    You can’t unring a bell – we’ve turned to authoritarianism. Now, to be clear: that was (probably) done for the right reasons. But from now on authoritarian solutions are not unthinkable. Just take a look at social media to get some idea of how strong the authoritarian impulse is now and some of it is coming from a very dark place. Now – again – it might well be for the right reasons, but it is a genie that’s not going back into the bottle any time soon.

    Indeed, here’s a thought exercise for you. Had social media been around in 1983 how would it have reacted to the AIDS outbreak and how would government have responded?

  • Little Jackie Paper 8th Apr '20 - 6:53pm

    Just to be clear on my previous post – I’m not only referring to the UK. This is worldwide now. What to do about it is anyone’s guess.

  • I would query whether the actions on the virus are authoritarian. If the large majority of the population either support restrictions or say they should more restrictive, how can this be defined as authoritarian?
    We might wake up to the realities of our life on this planet. Travel has been increasingly easy. Disease can spread increasingly easily. We tend not to notice what is really happening. The previous SARS outbreak we largely escaped. Although some noticed it and similar outbreaks and looked at the possible impact on our country, our government ignored it.
    We might now decide that to have systems in place for outbreaks of infectious disease might be a good investment. We might also consider that however well prepared we think we are there is always the possibility of a new threat.
    I would also like to hope that more people would think about the reality that many more on this planet die each day from weapons which we supply, and from the results of wars around the planet. Many more that is than we are rightly concerned about because of the virus.

  • Peter Hirst 9th Apr '20 - 12:19pm

    Resisting infringements of liberties caused by public health emergencies such as Covid 19 is not as easy as those around security because health is so emotive. These questions are balancing acts. With at risk populations remaining, until a vaccine becomes available it is going to be challenging to deny some restriction in freedom to travel is necessary. Once we know who has had or not the infection these decisions will be easier and might be on an individual rather than general basis.

  • Dilettante Eye 9th Apr '20 - 1:21pm

    “You can’t unring a bell – we’ve turned to authoritarianism. “

    Are you sure, or is it because 80% are relatively safe, and they resent restrictions on their liberty to protect the vulnerable 20%? To emphasis the point, if this virus killed 90% and 10% recovered, would these present measures still seem authoritarian or just common sense?
    HIV/AIDS is a bad choice of comparison because it was a blood/body fluid risk, and in no way transferable inside the 2 metre cough/sneeze zone.

    I’m not convinced some here fully understand the exponential nature of this viral threat?
    If you have a cancer, or heart disease, you can walk around the local park all day, because your illness is not a threat to others. Problem is, the nature of this virus means we simply don’t know if you, are a viral spreadingthreat? And just because you might be confident of being in the 80% safe category, doesn’t give you the right to gamble with the lives of the 20%.

    Imagine ~ one young chap decides he’s had enough of box-sets, phones 10 friends and they decide to have a game of footie in the local park. His friends feel great, but unbeknown to the 10one of them have contracted the virus from a shopping trolley days earlier. They have bottles of water and sweat towels used as goal posts, and being competitive there’s a lot of huffing and puffing and close contact. That one infected person who could have passed his infection to 9 others,.. didn’t, and instead passed it on to just 2 of his friends. His newly infected friends are also of the same disposition, and each pass it on to 2 others. How does this potentially pan-out?

    1.. 2.. 4.. 8.. 16.. ……. 512,.. 1024.. 2048. …. 8192.. 16384 new infections in the space of a couple of weeks

    And if 80% have mild symptoms so 20% have serious symptoms. So 16384 * 20% equals 3276 seriously ill.

    So one person deciding to enjoy their liberal right to have a kick up with his mates has the potential to fill the Nightingale (4000) bed hospital inside three weeks. It’s not about your right to do as you please because you are low risk, it’s about the rights of thousands of strangers who may be more vulnerable that you, not to have to die as a price for your fun day out?

  • @Dilettante Eye

    Very well put.

    Unfortunately though and I am not insinuating that it is the opinions of those on here, I keep hearing from some that the vast majority of those that are dying had underlying conditions and would more than likely die in the next few years anyway. Every time I hear it on the media when they announce the daily death rates and say “x” amount had underlying conditions. I find this so offensive as it seems to insinuate that these lives had less meaning.
    My mother has lived with COPD for 20 years, there is nothing to say that she could not have another 10 years ahead of her if she does not catch this virus.
    My Father has had dementia and Heart Disease for 5 years, there is nothing to say that he could not enjoy another 5 years as long as he does not succumb to this virus.
    I myself am only 44 and have Chron’s Disease and recently had a pulmonary embolism amongst other conditions but am at risk due to a lower immune system I could have another 40 years in me as long as I do not succumb to this virus first.

    All lives are equal, no matter your age, health or worth, a right to life is the most fundamental part of Liberty surely

  • Dilettante Eye
    imagine that the lockdown policy isn’t so much to save lives as it is to stop health service being swamped by people with serious medical conditions needing intervention on mass suddenly instead of at the pace the system it is set up for. Imagine that this why the message reads Stay at home, save the NHS and save lives rather than the emphasis being on the saving lives bit. Imagine also that when this is all over there is going to be a colossal economic crash caused by lost savings, lost business, lost jobs and a crash in the property market due the downscaling of office space (working from home means fewer overheads) and lots and of people deciding that living in cities is no longer as exciting as it was. Britain has a service industry based economy that is heavily reliant on asset values and, it has to be said, London. We’ve just put great chunks of those services out of business, we are damaging asset values and we’ve effectively closed London. You can’t live on good intentions and clapping key workers for very long. There will come a point where the lockdown causes more damage to the economy, health and society than the virus. People don’t have the money or resources to take months of lockdown. It’s also vey unhealthy.

  • @Matt

    It’s worth listening to the BBC Radio 4 More or Less programmes on the coronavirus. On that a very well respected statistician professor for the public understanding of risk said whatever your age if you get coronavirus, you have the same risk of dying within a few weeks as you would in a whole year without it. This does not mean that there are no “excess” deaths this year as we and he doesn’t know what the “overlap” is. But person a might die of coronavirus but in an alternative history dementia or a heart attack or road accident would have got them within a year – but sort of a teasonsble-ush guess might be half.

    To be very clear I am in agreement with you and dilettante eye. Exponential growth is such a difficult thing to get your head around. But approx half the deaths have occured in the last three days and that was true before that.l but hslf the number Deaths are a lagging indicator of up to 3 weeks so hopefully the replication rate is below 1 in which case it dies out but do the maths and there is a massive difference while there are a large number of infectious people of a replication rate of 0.9, 0.7, 0.4….

    It’s why I’ve changed my mind and given we eventually went into lockdown, we should have gone into lockdown much much earlier.

    If there’s a death rate of 1% and the real problem is we don’t know if 30 million got it if we didn’t do anything 300,000 deaths sadly (may be 150,000 “excess deaths”) is unacceptable in itself not to mention the knock-on effects.

    We have to have a loss of liberty…

    But it should be done with care and not officiously and thinking what is the ultimate aim. Seeing cramped tube trains after the lockdown was “Criminal” and I am sorry all non-essential work in London should have stopped until it was clear people that could get to work safely. And the police and self-apponted media should be cracking down on unsafe warehouse working than I don’t know say someone going to a s second home in a self contained box known as a car..

    My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by coronavirus and every death is a tragedy, may everyone live long healthy lives!

    Stay safe everyone – lurker or commentator LDV wouldn’t be the same without you!

  • @glenn

    I have some sympathy with your view as I have commented in other threads but have ultimately come to a different conclusion. And I don’t like being somewhat cold hearted as every death at any age is a tragedy and there are many unknowns. But a bit like a car parking fine or toothache you ignore it until you finally realise that you should have acted earlier no matter how early you act l!;as the pain just increases! We’re probably on to root canal work
    by now….. !!!

    There are a lot of known unknowns, guesses and probably some unknown unknowns!

    But here goes…

    No lockdown

    May be 30 million infected, 300,000 deaths, may be 150,000 “exceeds deaths” – see above

    Unknown numbers of further deaths due to the NHS unable to cope in cancer etc. I don’t know but may be tens of thousands over lockdown.

    a less severe down turn but people still spending less with the deaths, a global recession etc. Who knows – may be half scenario 2????

    Possible increase in economic activity due to fewer older people who are not economic active (and no I am not advocating this just trying to itemise possible categories and I realize that grandparents contribute economic value in caring for their grandkids etc. Etc.)

    Possible civil disobedience over callous government causing death but possibly few deaths.

    Current timing of lockdown

    Given we are fast approaching 10,000 deaths may be sadly approaching 20,000+ from coronavirus

    Some deaths due to a stretched NHS in cancer, cardiology etc. but less than in scenario 1

    Deaths due to increased depression, domestic abuse, obesity, lack of exercise.

    Fewer deaths due to better air quality (an article on the BBC website put this at 50,000 in Wuhan province but without any supporting refs and it’s likely to be less in the UK), fewer traffic accidents etc but likely to be quite short term.

    Deaths due to lower GDP i believe that researchers at Bristol University have estimated this at 250,000-350,000

    You’re “world king” or at least British PM (and all the best to Boris) you choose !

    To be clear I don’t like any item that causes death nor am I saying that older lives are not of value but I am just trying to itemise some items that have come up in the media or popped into my one brain cell!

    All the he best to everyone. Be responsible and stay safe!

  • Michael
    the countries that started the lock downs are gradually removing them, without a vaccine in sight and with very many less deaths than the models were predicting. The economic damage is being ignored. It will have consequences that far outreach the virus. Personally, my capacity for sympathy and enthusiasm for community spirit is shrinking with ever day the lockdown goes on. And a lot of that is absolutely personal. I stick by the rules, but I don’t believe in them and I resent the people imposing them. When it’s all over I will not thank anyone or celebrate the phoney “victory”.

  • Michael 1
    We do not know if there would be 300,000 deaths. It’s sounds callous, but there are about 600, 000 deaths in the UK a year and more some years. So it’s possible that Covid19 is a new factor in the horrible reality of mortality, but is not greatly adding to it. The problem I have is that countries have adopted lockdown measures based on the actions of China, without considering the possibility that the CCP was trying to contain the spread of news as much as the disease. The CCP is mainly interested in protecting the CCP and making sure that China remains the world’s factory. It’s very image conscious. It currently claims that the only new cases are from people brining it in from outside of China. But anyway we’re where we are and the repercussions will be with us for a long time.

  • @glenn

    The point on the percentage of deaths is valid but essentially the precautionary principle applies. I did wonder whether it might be a lot less but it seems unlikely. I believe I heard an estimate that *may be* 10% of the population has been affected and we are likely to get sadly approaching 20,000 deaths on that. 100,000 would not be an unreasonable conservative estimate on a 50% infection rate. In addition you *might* get an extra 100,000 deaths due to lack of ventilators, little NHS capacity to do non coronavirus work etc. Etc.

    That we get 600,000 deaths a year is also valid. We don’t know how many of the coronavirus deaths are “excess” deaths and is a point that I dealt with above. But may be half (and that’s a complete and utter guess) so that would be 100,000 excess deaths. But these are complete and utter guesses if not unreasonable.

    I appreciate the point on China. There is no doubt that reducing social interaction reduces the replication rate. I think you can argue that our restrictions are too broad brush but it is difficult and they are in line with Italy and France and indeed less restrictive and they look as if they are bending the curve as probably are we.

  • Katharine Pindar 10th Apr '20 - 11:11am

    Michael 1, “There has to be a loss of liberty.” I would say that we should never accept that as a given, but always question it. Then we might say, “At this time in this crisis we may have to accept some restrictions on our liberty, but they must be temporary.” Liberties must be defended by Liberal Democrats, and we know that once they begin to be eroded, that can too easily be accepted as the new norm.

  • Dilettante Eye 10th Apr '20 - 1:09pm


    I truly get the inverse side of the lock-down argument.

    ~ Risk of authoritarianism being here to stay?
    For many, it seems we are surrendering freedoms gained over centuries in order to be protected from something which is in relative terms! comparatively harmless, with an 80% mild 19% seriously ill and 1% (or less) death rate.
    But even Tory MP’s such as Ian Duncan Smith and Steve Baker have voiced such concerns directed at their own Tory front bench.
    Using phrases like ‘I vote for this [emergency] legislation with a heavy heart’ and
    ‘This legislation should remain on the statute NOT one moment longer than is necessary’
    I think almost everyone sees the risks, and are vigilant to ensure these measures have a sunset clause?

    ~ Shutting down our economy so brutally, for this virus is one thing, but will the economy ever fire up again to something recognisable and viable to sustain our country?

    So, we seem to have seriously trashed our economy on that same anvil of 1% risk of death, which probably seems to some like setting the house on fire because we have discovered some mildew in the bathroom. But this is a war, with an enemy that is only 0.0005 microns ‘tall’, but nevertheless wants to host-us and kill those of us that don’t tolerate it.
    Every war ends with substantial unwanted destruction, but that is the nature of war. It’s in the rebuilding after a war, that we get the opportunities to do it the economy differently. Opportunity follows crisis, and we should use that opportunity to upgrade the way we do things using far less energy, and far less waste. We’ve talked about it long enough; post virus, is the time to do it.

    Speaking of opportunity, one fear I have is that a crushed economy will be looking for cash. We should be very cognisant of wealthy opportunists like Murdoch, Branson, Russian oligarchs, Hedge Funds, Chinese oligarchs, US Corporations and Indian oligarchs turning our battered economy into a fire-sale for their portfolio ?

    Don’t fear authoritarianism by the government, instead be vigilant, for which bits of the economy and the state gets sold off cheap,… and who to?

  • Dilettante Eye.
    I disagree. I think a lot of the laws will stay on books under the pretext that a pandemic could happen anytime.

    It is not a war. Some people like calling it war because it makes sitting in your house sound heroic instead of passive and powerless and deathly dull. It also reassures people that rather than just vaguely fizzling out to return later or hanging around as another threat to older people and those with underlying health problems, Covid19 will be vanquished. Viruses mutate and this is new strain within a common family of viruses, which includes colds and influenza . The problem is that isn’t lethal enough to isolate very easily and the vast majority of the population is already as good as immune to it. Meanwhile the economy is being trashed and what will go is not big companies, hedge funds, Murdoch or Oligarchs, but the small ones. The shops, the restaurants, the pubs, the cafes and the just about managing. Now, I’m off to sit in my garden with a jug of mineral water, ice and some sliced cucumber.

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