We can’t tell how this will turn out. The best predictions are usually made on the basis of recent history. But that won’t work here. In the long ongoing historical struggle between self and society – a.k.a.Tory and Labour, or neoliberalism and democratic socialism, or (perhaps) Republican and Democrat – the great coronavirus crisis obviously interrupts the dominant narrative, with ‘emergency’ measures needing to be taken which bear little relationship to what has gone before. But when (if?) it’s all over, who knows? Will it be like World War I, after which life in Britain returned to ‘normal’; or World War II, when people learned the lessons of pre-crisis failures to use the new state agencies to strengthen peace-time society (see my last post); or a third alternative, with people choosing ‘strong leadership’ to guide them out of the national and global devastation that the crisis may have caused? At present few people are looking beyond coronavirus, understandably.
Still, we need to keep an eye open for some of the longer-term implications of any emergency legislation that might be brought in over the next few months. Without necessarily subscribing to the conspiracy theory that regards the disease as having been deliberately nurtured in order to provide a cover for other measures (Right- and Left-wing plots have both been suspected by crazies in the USA), it could well be that politically-motivated individuals could try to use it for that purpose. I’m thinking here, of course, of men like Dominic Cummings; but we shouldn’t dismiss the notion that there may be plotters like him on the Left.
For example: we know full well that Cummings, Johnson and most Brexiters have become impatient with the restrictions that Parliament and the courts have tried to impose on the Executive in recent months. The last Tory manifesto promised – albeit vaguely – a revision of the whole British constitution in the light of this, in order to strengthen Boris’s and his lickspittle cabinet’s powers. What if MPs were suddenly induced to ‘self-isolate’ themselves from the virus, suspending Parliament, so leaving the present government temporarily unaccountable, and Boris (and Dominic) free to do their worst? All kinds of measures could then be taken which could leave long-lasting repercussions, quite beyond what might be necessary to ‘fight’ the virus, but hidden from attention by this great scare.
There are precedents for this. One that I’ve written about was the Official Secrets Act of 1911: on the surface a measure simply to counter German espionage, but with powers ranging far more widely and permanently than that, and passed by a panic-stricken and uncritical Parliament in a single day. Some of the consequences of that you can read about in my Plots and Paranoia. We need to be vigilant over this kind of thing over the next few months. The virus seems all-consuming at present. (Doesn’t it make all those years of debate over Brexit seem trivial and stupid?) The measures that are about to be enacted to combat it may be necessary. But we need to look in the cracks and shadows of them, to ensure that they don’t hold other future dangers, and opportunities for Machiavels to do their worst.
PS. (March 20): this is precisely what I’m nervous of: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/19/the-guardian-view-on-the-coronavirus-bill-strengthen-the-sunset-clause.