Protesters are seen in Parliament Square during a Unite for Freedom march on 24 October 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The cost of being a lockdown sceptic

The British intelligentsia as a class has failed in the most public way possible to defend free speech

In December, the weather changed. When lockdown was re-imposed in England, cold winds blew for public figures who questioned the government’s handling of Covid-19.

These figures were not “anti-vaxxers”, “Covid deniers” or “opportunistic media voices who made a habit of denying the necessity of restrictions and the severity of the pandemic”, as The Guardian sententiously mischaracterised opposition. They were established commentators who understood that Covid-19 is potentially dangerous and that practical measures (including vaccines) were reasonable responses. These critics pointed out the apparent ineffectiveness of mass lockdowns, the increased toll of missed diagnoses and deferred/cancelled treatments, impact of school closures, rising mental-health problems and astronomical public debt.

Lockdown has exposed many free-expression supporters as fair-weather friends of open discussion

For presenting reasonable grounds for concern, sceptical journalists and broadcasters such as Maajid Nawaz, Peter Hitchens, Allison Pearson, Toby Young and Julia Hartley-Brewer – as well as respected health specialists and scientists Professor Sunetra Gupta, Professor Carl Heneghan and others – faced public execration. Prominent figures who accused them of not taking Covid-19 seriously included Piers Morgan, Neil O’Brien MP, journalists Paul Mason and Dan Hodges, Dr Hilary Jones and others, not mentioning officials and cabinet ministers. They appeared to disagree less with the lockdown sceptics’ points of view, and more the fact that they were allowed to dissent in the first place.

Why such anger? The lockdown critics are part of a small minority of the press and have never influenced government policy. Lockdown support dominates mass media. No British newspaper or television/radio broadcaster presents a sceptical editorial viewpoint on lockdowns. Private Eye, the former satirical thorn in the side of the establishment, lambasted Hitchens’s anti-lockdown stance.

Where were the unequivocal statements defending press freedom and willingness to scrutinise government action? There was near silence. Lockdown has exposed many free-expression supporters as fair-weather friends of open discussion.

Regardless of whether or not the actions were justified, the greatest withdrawal of civil liberties in peace-time – perhaps ever in modern Western history – deserved of the commentariat more than a collective shrug. Vocal defenders of dissident writers in distant lands have nothing to say about peaceful protestors in their own country being detained, fined and cautioned. Feminist writers, who made careers out of lamenting the burden of domesticity upon women, have no public reaction to the plight of single mothers made unemployed and effectively housebound while also home-schooling multiple children simultaneously.

Being tarred and feathered as an anti-vaxxer is threat enough to silence most supporters of free speech

Lifelong left-wingers hear the argument that lockdowns disproportionately impact the working poor – due to fewer savings, zero-hours contracts, fewer opportunities to work from home, working in essential front-line services and so forth – and respond with embarrassed throat-clearing and muttering something about “following the science”. When trade-unionist and Labour Party-member Paul Embery talks of how the opposition front bench should be opposing lockdown, he is treated by colleagues as a traitor. Equally, supposed stalwarts of conservative values seem to care little about stripping away freedom of association and freedom to work. Jacob Rees-Mogg, defender of traditional values and religious conscience, has consistently toed the government line on lockdown.

Doubtless the silence has multiple causes. It is not only hypocrisy, although that certainly is a factor. A web of social conformity, career preservation, misdirected compassion and timidity also play a part. Data hardly comes into it, regrettably. People react emotionally and follow personal impulses, using factual evidence to support their outlooks.

The division seems to be not a right-left one, although the political left does seem to break in support of lockdowns more strongly than the right does. The division is dictated by our moral compasses and our innate responses to authoritarianism and liberty. (Jonathan Haidt lucidly explains this in the book The Righteous Mind.) We have all seen cancel culture run rampant. Being tarred and feathered as an anti-vaxxer is threat enough to silence most supporters of free speech. Indeed, on the political left, free speech is now a “white supremacist dog-whistle” – free speech is merely cover deployed for spreading hate speech.

The British intelligentsia as a class have failed in the most public way possible to defend free speech

As has ever been the case, tyrants justify new encroachments on freedom as A) due to extraordinary circumstances, B) temporary, C) for the greater good and D) to protect the vulnerable. They portray dissent as dangerous, irresponsible and contrary to the facts. This is apparent in even the most cursory reading of history, yet today there are historians who cannot see retraction of our liberties as at all familiar. Or rather, they can see it, and rationalise their compliance as reasonable in the light of exceptional conditions. What today’s situation shows is exactly how courageous dissenters in religious and political tyrannies are. Sitting at home, on furlough, with no threat of arrest, advocates of civil liberties will not even issue mild support for the right to question government policy.

Any individual who holds prominence in public life by defending civil liberties and who has remained silent on the widespread pillorying of lockdown sceptics has forfeited the right to be treated with seriousness and respect. It does not matter whether or not one supports the sceptical position. What matters is that people defend the right to question the efficacy of lockdowns in curbing the impact of an endemic virus.

Freedom of speech is not limited by the caveat “until I personally disagree with the speaker”. The principle of freedom of speech includes speech which is disagreeable and incorrect. Indeed, freedom of speech is specifically concerned with fringe cases: insults, provocations, clumsy slips, cranky ideas. Supporters of freedom of expression do not get exemptions from their principles when someone states that criticism of government strategy is “spreading dangerous misinformation” and that dissenters “have blood on their hands”. The principle of free speech applies then more than ever. One gets the feeling many people who gain kudos for supporting free speech actually relish being excused defending lockdown sceptics on the grounds of public safety.

Regardless of successes and failures of Covid-19 policy, individual intellectuals, journalists and academics – and the intelligentsia as a class – have failed in the most public way possible to defend free speech. It is a pitiful performance.

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