Diversity in scepticism

Questioning the lockdown isn’t a Brexit or culture wars thing

Artillery Row

David Scullion’s list of lockdown sceptics neatly captures some of the most influential – and well-known – voices arguing against blindly extending the government’s draconian anti-Covid measures.

Yet all of the names included have something else in common: they were all equally prominent voices in the campaign for Brexit, and the culture war that followed.

It’s a point that’s been seized upon by Robert Shrimsley, UK editor of the Financial Times, who has dismissed the lockdown sceptics as a shadowy network of former Leave bigwigs and Spectator columnists.

But he’s wrong. It isn’t just Brexiteers – or even right wingers – who have concerns about the social and economic impacts of the ongoing lockdown.

Here are five other important voices who have, to varying degrees, called on the government to rethink its strategy:

1. Matthew Parris – Times columnist

“If only we had a little more faith in people’s common sense – that would see us through; not the issuing of guidelines and parameters and all the rest.”

The ex-Tory MP and ardent, bittereinder, Remainer, Matthew Parris appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme in the early days of the lockdown warning that it may end up crashing the economy and costing more lives in the long run. He also offered a powerful defence of British liberty, and warned against the illiberal (and un-neighbourly) instincts of those looking to make life harder for their neighbours.

A few days later, Parris emerged again to fight the good fight, this time in a radio debate over whether public parks should remain open (one of the few victories for the lockdown sceptics). His opponent? Former Apprentice contestant – and out-and-proud Brexiteer – Michelle Dewberry.

Dewberry, who had complained on Twitter about people relaxing in her local park, argued that closing parks altogether would be preferable to letting a minority break the rules. Parris, meanwhile, called on authorities to appeal to gold old ‘common sense’ and keep their green spaces open. Thankfully, on this occasion at least, the government agreed.

2. Philip Hammond – former Chancellor

“We’ve got to start reopening the economy and I think the sensible compromise is to reopen it around a set of conditions which assume that, for the time being, we are coexisting with this virus rather than conquering it.”

As Theresa May’s Chancellor, Philip Hammond was a constant thorn in the side of hardline Brexiteers, reportedly blocking measures to prepare for a ‘no deal’ exit and even canvassing opinion on a second referendum.

Yet when Hammond – who lost the Tory whip in Boris’s Brexit wars – took part in a Chatham House seminar on the economic impact of the lockdown, his hawkish analysis would have been music to the ears of his former opponents in the 1922 Committee and small town Conservative clubs.

In order to avoid sustained damage to our national prosperity, he argued, the government should set out a ‘route map’ – in partnership with business – as to how the economy could be safely restarted. ‘This is a £2 trillion economy,’ he said. ‘You can’t spin it up overnight from nothing.’

3. Sir Keir Starmer – Official Opposition leader

“Millions of people have played their part […]. In return, the Government needs to be open and transparent with the public about how it believes the lockdown will ease.”

A leading light of the party’s soft left, Sir Keir Starmer – elected Labour leader this month – inherited a wounded party that had been dragged painfully to the left by the Corbynistas and then smashed to pieces in the general election.

Once he’d made his first big move as leader (issuing a strong public apology for the antisemitism scandal), Sir Keir turned his focus to the coronavirus lockdown, surprising some commentators when he called on the government to set out its exit strategy – a move defended by the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush.

Admittedly, Sir Keir is no full-blown sceptic (his letter to acting PM Dominic Raab made it clear he supported the government’s decision to extend the lockdown) but he should be commended for his insistence on transparency around the lockdown. Let’s hope more parliamentarians follow suit.

4. Jonathan Sumption – Supreme Court judge

“Governments have adopted, with public support, the most extreme and indiscriminate measures. We have subjected most of the population, young or old, vulnerable or fit, to house imprisonment for an indefinite period.”

While his political views might be secret, Jonathan Sumption can probably fairly be described as the embodiment of the establishment that some Brexiteers rage against. So it will have surprised them at least when Sumption, a former Supreme Court judge, made one of the strongest – and strongly-worded – interventions in the lockdown debate, remarking on Radio 4 that the whole thing resembled ‘a police state’.

Expanding on the comments in a remarkable Times editorial, Lord Sumption – writing with all the force and gravitas you’d expect from a senior judge – went further, saying that the government’s response ‘represented an interference with our lives’ that was ‘intolerable in a free society.’

Supporters of the British method of appointing – rather than electing – our judiciary say it allows judges to opt for the right, rather than popular, thing to do. With polls suggesting widespread support for the oppressive lockdown, Sumption’s intervention is a stellar example of that principle.

5. Isabel Hardman – Spectator assistant editor

“Perhaps we should only be eating gruel for the next few months. But these aren’t currently government policy, and it’s not the job of the police to create laws.”

As a lobby journalist rather than an opinion writer, Hardman is known for analysing what’s going on in Westminster (as opposed to editorialising on its rights and wrongs). It makes sense, then, that she has focused her Covid columns on critiquing the specifics, rather than the overall merits, of lockdown policy.

Yet in doing so, Hardman has written brilliantly about many of the social problems that sceptics argue could be alleviated by adopting a less strict regime. These include the problems with overzealous policing, to the lamentable rise of ‘coronavirus shaming’, and the heartbreaking spike in domestic violence.

She was quick, too, to rebut Health Secretary Matt Hancock when he floated the idea of banning outdoor exercise altogether – an episode widely regarded in Westminster as a low-point of the whole lockdown episode.

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