“When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.” An Old Jew of Galicia, quoted by Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind (1953)
Watching the government’s goalposts for lifting lockdown is like watching skaters on an ice rink: look away for a moment, and when you turn back, everyone, everything, is in a different place. How many times have we been told when this happens, or that target is met, then the rules can be relaxed? The grossest example is of course the arrival of the vaccine cavalry, that would liberate us from lockdown hell. But here we are, over two months after the cavalry arrived, still locked down nice’n’tight. Only this week, the government introduced Chinese Communist Party style restrictions on international travel, with promises of draconian prison sentences for anyone caught bending the rules, and fines that even some in the police believe are too draconian.
Yet bizzarely, almost half of those polled in the second week January, when we were already in the third national lockdown, thought the measures then in place were not strict enough, with another third of the view that the measures were about right (see image above). Less than ten percent thought the measures were too strict. That’s less than ten percent ‘tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed, for the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse’. Where there should be chimes of freedom, we have instead Plague Island, an abominable inversion of Donne’s vision, where clods do be washed away unseen, and no man is part of the main; and no one sends to know for whom the bell tolls, because the bell has long since stopped tolling.
What have we become? Captain Mainwaring’s automatons ruled by a lunatic who looks like a clown? Or worse? Perry and Croft, Dad’s Army’s scriptwriters, were poking fun at Nazidom, but we now find that this diagnosis of the German problem now fits rather closer to home. That January poll again: another way of describing the results is to say that more than four out of five of those polled are willing automatons, content to be ruled by a lunatic who looks like a clown; and, what’s more, two thirds of those willing automatons want further restrictions. Over the course of a few short months last year, the United Kingdom has shown itself to be united not in glorious purpose, but in a grim determination to turn itself into an authoritarian state.
The definition of an authoritarian state varies from source to source. If we distil out the essential elements, we find something close to an Oxford dictionary definition, which has it that the common feature of authoritarian states is the enforcement of obedience to a central authority, at the expense of personal freedoms, rule of law and other constitutional values and principles. Dr No has added an essential comma, after authority; and if we compare the United Kingdom today to that description of what makes a authoritarian state, we find a perfect match. We live in an authoritarian state. But how did we get there?
It was a combination of two things. The first was a classic insider coup, only it wasn’t the generals who took charge, it was the modellers and behavioural scientists advising government. Control freaks every man Jack and girl Jill of them, early last year they looked longingly halfway round the globe at China, at policies unattainable here… or were they? ‘It’s a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought,’ Ferguson recalled in December last year, ‘and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.’ The Overton window, which Dr No learnt about from a comment on a previous post, hadn’t just moved on a peg, it had in one movement pinged all the way to the authoritarian end of the scale.
But realising they could do it was only half of the two bit jigsaw. To make it happen, the government needed something else, the handmaiden of all authoritarian states, the identification and vilification of a common threat to the people. In the very early days, the novel coronavirus fitted the bill perfectly. But humans are strange creatures that need but the slightest prod to hate their own kind. Before long we became a nation divided, between lockdown fanatics and lockdown sceptics, between mask fanatics and mask sceptics, between the majority automatons and the minority resistance.
Before long, the fanatical majority bore down ever harder on the sceptic minority, and as it did so became ever more confident of its own certainties. The more they projected their contempt and hatred on the sceptics, the more confident they became in their own certainty, that they were 100% right, and so the more they became Milosz’s fanatics and thugs. As they came to internalise their certainty, they came to know that they were 100% right, and that could only mean one thing, the sceptics were 100% wrong. Even worse, the sceptics are dangerous, and must be eliminated, as vermin that threaten to damage the very fabric of safety woven so artlessly around the fanatical majority.
On this fertile ground authoritarianism grows. One the seeds of obedience to a central authority, at the expense of personal freedoms, rule of law and other constitutional values and principles take root, they grow hard and fast. What was once alien becomes ever more familiar, and so ever more normal. What would have struck us as utterly bizarre only eighteen months ago becomes — through a process Milosz describes as both stupefying and loathsome — so familiar, so normal, so everyday, that it seems entirely natural. Authoritarianism has achieved its goal, of embedding itself so completely that it now seems it and only it is the natural order. Why else would the illuminated motorway gantries have replaced 6 Minutes to Junction 5 with Stay Home Save Lives?
That is how we descended from a democratic state, with respect for the rule of law, and other constitutional values and principles, into the pit of the baleful authoritarian state we find ourselves in today. That much, at least, is clear to Dr No. What is far less clear is how we extract ourselves from this stupefying, loathsome and alien state.