We don’t have a government where we can take a default position of trust, but emergency temporary, non-liberal, centrally-controlled measures may be needed because of coronavirus pandemic.

First published in March 2020.

There’s a fundamental tension here. As you know, I’ve predicted for some time that the crisis provoked by Brexit would be used as cover for authoritarian measures that in normal times would be unacceptable. Authoritarians are gonna authoritarian, and these are authoritarians.

However, governments have a monopoly on enforcing measures, so when situations arise, like this one (the coronavirus pandemic), that require action, behavioural change, and emergency measures – and the enforcement of them – there’s no one but them that can do it.

Most liberals accept that in emergencies, temporary, non-liberal, centrally-controlled measures may be needed, but that rests on having, as a general rule, governments elected in normal, non-emergency times that are broadly trustworthy.

And there’s the tension we face.

We obviously don’t have a government where we can take a default position of trust, BUT there is no other authority capable of taking measures that genuinely are necessary.

We are therefore collectively stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. Not trusting the government can have very bad consequences, and so can trusting them. Catch-22.

The hope is that checks and balances are in place that keep any measures under close and constant scrutiny, but there is obviously little trust that that is the case now either.

For me, it then comes down to whether the professional, non-political actors like the Chief Medical Officer for England (CMO) and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) would really stand in front of the cameras and lie (and lie about something involving thousands of potential deaths) for the sake of the government.

Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Professor Chris Whitty. / Gov.uk

Government Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA), Sir Patrick Vallance. / Gov.uk

I am inclined to think they wouldn’t. That doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong, but the trust is that what they say publicly is in accordance with their private advice – i.e., they are being truthful (whether right or wrong).

But we are still faced with a Catch-22, and need to hold the government to account at every stage. For example, emergency measures can be planned for two years if that is needed, but they should need to be renewed, and hence examined and stopped if no longer neccesary, ever few months.

That has to be our condition for consent for non-liberal measures. They must be temporary, and there must be regular, fixed opportunities to re-examine and cancel. They must remain exceptional, not normal, and with reversion to normal the default.


[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 15 March 2020, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Number 10/Andrew Parsons. - The Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street. | 14 March 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)