When Steve Baker came close to tears all the way back in March when the initial lockdown was proposed, I must confess that I smirked at his melodramatic performance. The threat of coronavirus then was grave and new; libertarian hand-wringing was low on my agenda. Yet the events of the last few weeks have forced me to revisit his words, which seem increasingly like some sort of premonition. ‘We are implementing tonight in this bill at least a dystopian society. Some will call it totalitarian. I don’t think that is quite fair, but it is at least dystopian.’
Six months in, COVID-Britain feels increasingly like the dystopia that Baker feared and I dismissed. We are bombarded by a growing list of regulations that seem to be less motivated by the science of coronavirus but by the warped and dictatorial priorities of our government. When lockdown began, the British people acquiesced because it seemed to be and was necessary and because it was consistent. ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’ was a clear and convincing clarion call for national action.
Then came the summer and with it the exceptions. You can go to a shop if you wear a mask, but the employee who serves you doesn’t have to wear one. You can go out for dinner to a restaurant and almost feel normal, but you still can’t hug your grandma who lives down the road. Yet we accepted this, still deluded by the idea that this was a national effort and that further liberalisation of restrictions lay just around the corner.
But now as autumn nears we have come to see the pernicious and excessive control that the government, under the guise of COVID regulations, has assumed over our daily lives. Until a week ago we were urged to catch crowded commuter trains to work, but not to meet more than six people in clean, outdoor air. We are still encouraged to ‘eat out to help out’, but God forbid you get the late evening munchies after 10pm.
Opposition to this ludicrous double standard has fixated on the science and the risk. A plethora of memes mock coronavirus’s instantaneous change from docile to dangerous as the pub clock strikes the tenth hour. Yet the real issue is not the laughable justification for these restrictions but the motivation for them being put in place.
The government has decided that it has certain priorities for Britain in this ‘new normal’. Schools must reopen, the economy must recover, the NHS must be protected. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. What is dangerous and dystopian is how the government manipulates its unprecedented and unaccountable authority over its people to shape what we can and cannot do to their desires.
Since the government wants you back at work, you can take an overflowing bus and toil in barely socially distanced conditions. That’s not their concern; your tax receipts are. But your social and family life, however crucial to you, don’t factor in their thinking. You are labour, a productive tool to be shuttled to your place of work and then packed off home in the evening to a government engineered curfew. Stuff your mental health; the next government can worry about the endemic crisis this callous approach creates.
It is this ‘empathy gap’ which highlights the dystopia that Britain has become. We all know that there is no greater risk from you meeting friends than there is from you going to work. Most people would like to do a combination of the two. Yet since only one of those activities suits the government’s agenda, its convoluted rules will allow you to do one and not the other. Exposure and infection is only an acceptable risk when it suits the objectives of the state. Forget the planned economy, we are now a planned society.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that the government relishes this newfound power, or that they are manipulating it for some sinister social restructuring. Yet they have erred simply by assuming that they have the right to dictate where and when the British people want to take their own, measured risk. This is exposed most disturbingly by the bizarre notion that the authoritarian ‘rule of six’ may be relaxed for Christmas Day. Clearly coronavirus needs a day off. I’m sure many will grovel in gratitude at the surprising largesse shown in this state mandated holiday. 1984 isn’t fiction anymore, it’s a way of life. Hail the party.