Over 28,000 are dead, the economy is in free-fall and it is forbidden to go to school, enter most shops, visit friends or summoning a waiter – normal beavhour that was not prohibited even when Messerschmitts were over-flying British airspace. If nothing else, might these terrible times have offered auspicious circumstances for the party of liberalism? Might the Liberal Democrats have used their minority status to stand above the lockdown clamour and articulate a note of contrarianism? They could perhaps have made the following statement, “we have ceded extraordinary powers to the government to meet this crisis and it is our job to question and challenge some of these transferrals of rights from the individual to the state where we cannot see that they are justified.”
This stance would have been in the Whig tradition of Charles James Fox, but it is easy to appreciate why the LibDems have shirked a historic calling. The opinion polling indicates that lockdown scepticism does not currently command widespread support. Overwhelmingly, Britons have answered the call to help others by staying away from them.
An appreciation of where the popular mood resides is only part of the LibDem risk assessment, even although their support for full lockdown makes them indistinguishable from the leadership of any other mainstream party. The LibDems disproportionately draw support and comfort from the company of academics, educationists, and public sector appointees. The party is therefore not readily geared to question the professional consensus of the chief medical officer, the chief scientific officer, the experts who advise SAGE and the statistical modelling of Professor Ferguson at Imperial College London. To dispute their view would be unimaginably vulgar, Trumpian, populist. It is not how LibDems approach problem solving.
With the possible exception of the SNP, no party is as fully-signed-up to the lockdown logic and the prolonged curtailment of basic civil liberties that it necessitates than the Liberal Democrats. In this, they do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. One coronavirus casualty is their leadership election. It was due in June and is now postponed until March 2021 at the earliest. Given that five of the grand total of eleven LibDem MPs had contemplated standing, it is humbling to see such self-fulfilment readily put on ice in the national interest. It means that the LibDems will spend the next year with only an acting leader in Sir Ed Davey. He will have to use this time exceptionally badly not to be anointed as leader de jure one day when the world is free.
So far he has used the opportunity to promote utilitarian perceptions of the greater good over the rights of the individual. In doing so The Davey Method is noticeably less forgiving about the scale and complexity of the government’s task than Sir Keir Starmer.
The new Labour leader has offered his broad support to the government’s strategy and identified specific areas of failing delivery on which to urge greater focus. Ed Davey also supports the government’s broad strategy but finds fault with almost everything the government does in its execution. Not a day goes by without a LibDem spokesperson making a fresh demand about what the government must do, quicker, bigger, stronger, harder. In the prioritising of Layla Moran, the LibDem education spokesperson and leadership aspirant, no lockdown loophole can ever be closed fast enough. The faith that the LibDem leadership puts in a command state to act decisively at a speed that permits scarcely the time to evaluate the consequences let alone the practical ability to implement is remarkable. At the first sign of panic, the LibDems have gone – to repurpose the analogy of Vince Cable – from Mr Bean to Stalin.
At the first sign of panic, the LibDems have gone from Mr Bean to Stalin.
An example is the unquestioning faith the LibDems place in mass surveillance. On Monday, 4 April, Ed Davey asserted that “mass testing, contact tracing and isolation at the community level for those who test positive is the only safe way out of lockdown.” Note Davey’s belief that this is the only way a lockdown can be slackened. This is caution transformed into a religion. Just to make everything more complicated, he stipulates that contact tracing should be done by those with “local knowledge” which “outsourcing this process to private companies like SERCO fails to capitalise on”.
Munira Wilson, the Lib Dems’ health spokesperson, has added further demands. “For the lockdown to end safely,” she says, “the Government needs to have a system of test, trace and isolate in place for the entire population.” Is she serious when she says “the entire population”? This would mean the swift, comprehensive and constant tracing of the movements and interactions of 66 million people with everyone being tested almost continuously. Even in the small, tech-savvy and state-obedient micro-state of Singapore, only 20 percent of the population is being tracked in this way.
Except in its support for data protection (whilst simultaneously favouring tracking the entire population) the LibDems have entirely and uncritically accepted the logic that the good of the lockdown trumps any loss to individual liberty. Sweden has achieved a broadly comparable Covid-19 infection R number (0.85) to Britain (0.8), without a lockdown but by trusting its citizens to exercise their judicious good sense in social distancing (no crowds bigger than fifty, but otherwise go to work, go to school, go out to eat if you want to). The experience of this Scandinavian left-liberal country ought to interest LibDems in evaluating where the balance between protecting life and safeguarding liberty may rest. It could be that what works in Malmö does not work in Manchester. Maybe our people lack Scandinavian self-discipline to enjoy liberty without abusing it and our big cities are more populous. But the LibDems are not even alive to the possibility. Not to even demonstrate curiosity in the Swedish experiment is myopic and – coming from the avowedly internationalist LibDems – surprisingly Little Englandish.
This is not to argue that the Lib Dems should become the party of “let it all hang out” libertarianism. Only a psychopath would see the deadly danger coronavirus presents as offering no reason to moderate behaviour or consider some restrictions of free will. Where the point of trade-off is between cost and benefit, principle and practice, lives potentially lost through loosening the lockdown and lives potentially lost as by-products of the lockdown’s continuation is not a precise science. It a matter for political judgement.
In his zealous pursuit of “safety first,” Ed Davey has handed the defence of liberty and scepticism to a wing of the Conservative party.
There is scant evidence of the LibDems’ publicly admitting that there is even a debate to be had. Whether speaking in the chamber or by videocall, not a single MP from any party in Monday’s House of Commons debate on the existing Covid-19 regulations doubted the need for the lockdown and the restrictions on normal behaviour it demands. But several MPs, notably Steve Baker, Aaron Bell, Sir Graham Brady, Marcus Fysh, Andrew Griffith, John Redwood and Sir Charles Walker, raised issues. All of these MPs have one thing in common – they are Tories. Their questions concerned where the cost-benefit lay in the coming weeks and evidence of over-zealous policing in which some constabularies have taken it upon themselves to ban activities that are not illegal – such as driving to a suitable place to exercise, or sunbathing in your own garden. As Steve Baker pointed out, prohibitions were enforced before they were even enshrined in law. The confusion between guidance and the law is an important one – and not one that LibDems are prioritising.
Why has it fallen only to Conservative MPs – noticeably from the Eurosceptic wing of the party – to articulate the view that, whilst the lockdown has been necessary, it cannot continue beyond the point where the harm it does could outweigh the good? None of the civil liberty issues that these MPs raised were echoed in Monday’s Commons debate by LibDem contributions. The extent of Ed Davey’s response was to slam Sir Graham Brady for suggesting that more employees were on lockdown than possibly needed to be. Davey breezily dismissed this as “appalling … outrageous and insulting to suggest [employees] are being lazy” – a claim far beyond what Brady actually said.
The belief that a consensus should be queried and that issues of civil liberty and basic freedoms are not irrelevant in times of crisis ought to be the default position of the Liberal Democrats. In his zealous pursuit of “safety first,” Ed Davey has handed the defence of liberty and reasoned scepticism to a wing of the Conservative party. In doing so, the acting leader may have squandered a historic opportunity to give back a sense of purpose to his own party.
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