The U.K. government is bringing in a new reign of authoritarianism.
From Magna Carta (1215), to the Great Reform Bill (1832), and beyond, the British constitution — unlike its American counterpart — has not been secure and considered, but reactive and malleable. Yet throughout Britain’s turbulent history, the state has never “exercised coercive powers over its citizens” on such a scale as it has in response to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. At least, that is the view of the historian and former U.K. supreme court justice, Jonathan Sumption, one of the most learned scholars and outspoken critics of his country’s coronavirus response.
In the Cambridge Freshfields annual law lecture late last month, Sumption explained exactly how Boris Johnson’s conservative government set about its “remarkable departure from our liberal traditions,” “surrendering basic freedoms which are fundamental to our existence” and allowing healthy and law-abiding citizens to be placed under house arrest. Sumption explained how this hasty legislation had essentially brought about “government by executive decree,” enforced by a police state.
Ever since lockdown measures were first enacted, critics have documented overly zealous policing, the micromanagement of which items can be bought in stores, and which forms of outdoor exercise are allowed. Now that Britain is on the brink of a second lockdown, the government has suggested keeping families from different households apart, as well as outlawing public worship.
The manifestations of such policies can be heartbreaking as well as absurd. Consider the recent episode of a 73-year-old woman — a qualified nurse, no less — arrested for attempting to take her 97-year-old mother out of a care home. This appalling episode was caught on camera by the arrested woman’s daughter, Leandra Ashton, who explained that the family were acting ahead of the enactment of the second nationwide lockdown, since they had already been unable to see their grandmother for nine months. Ashton complained: “When the rules — like so many in this period of our history — are purporting to be in place to ‘protect’ but yet are causing untold damage to physical and mental health then you start breaking the rules.” She added that this was a “Kafka-esque nightmare” with “people in masks coming to take your relative away from you.”