Happy St George’s Day. England is passing its saint’s day in lockdown, by and large contentedly. This is curious, for all sorts of reasons.
It is said by many observers and participants in the Government’s lockdown policy that the most remarkable thing about a remarkable policy is how successful it has been. Arguably too successful.
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Some people in and around government have been surprised, and not always happily, at how widely people have accepted and even embraced lockdown. Many more people than anyone really expected have chosen to heed the government’s messaging and shut themselves away for the duration.
That has deepened the economic impact of lockdown, and led to some unexpected misallocations of resources. Officials expected that around 20% of children would continue to go to school, either because their parents were key workers or because they qualified under the provision made for those eligible for free school meals by virtue of low incomes. In fact, the figure is barely 2%.
One reason the NHS has avoided catastrophic overload is the sharp drop in people presenting for non-Covid reasons. Some industries, such as construction, have all but shut down even though they were not told to do so and might have continued to operate in some form.
Elsewhere, lockdown is causing social tension and even protest. Only very small numbers of people in some American states are demonstrating against the curtailment of liberty, but they are demonstrating. The English, by contrast, have accepted lockdown with a wistful shrug and maybe a bit of passive-aggressive grumbling, eschewing riots in favour of settling down with a nice cup of tea to wait things out.
Curious, because I’m not sure how this sort of behaviour fits into ideas of the English, or at least, into English cultural history. Running through that history is the notion of the English as a people with a deep and even unique love of liberty, a desire to be left alone, especially by people in power.
After all, we had Magna Carta, did we not? That extraordinary document echoed down the centuries, with consequences far beyond my scope here. One was probably the Civil War, which in England at least had its roots in the legal reasoning of men such as Sir Edward Coke, that even the monarch was subject to Parliament’s laws. Coke paved the way for William Blackstone, the 18th century judge who defined “the absolute rights of every Englishman” including freedom from unwarranted interference by the state.
These “rights of Englishmen” were a cornerstone of the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States. At least some of the founders believed that their new nation was brought into being to preserve the liberties that supposedly defined England yet which a tyrannical king and his ministers had defiled.
Here is George Mason, one of the Founding Fathers, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787:
“We claim Nothing but the Liberty & Privileges of Englishmen, in the same Degree, as if we had still continued among our Brethren in Great Britain: these Rights have not been forfeited by any Act of ours, we can not be deprived of them without our Consent, but by Violence & Injustice…”
When our American cousins cry “Live Free or Die” and take to the streets to protest overweening state authority during lockdown, whether they know it or not, they are honouring the tradition of English liberty.
That tradition has not entirely died out in England itself, even if many of the English prefer to hallow St George and the nation’s history by ignoring the issue altogether. Or perhaps by grumbling at the lack of a Bank Holiday, a propensity for long weekends apparently being an essential part of our Protestant national character — so unlike the idle French and other workshy southern papists.
But some people still remember, upholding the idea of “freeborn Englishmen” as a band especially committed to personal freedom. One of them is our Prime Minister, whose writings for the Telegraph (I used to help edit them) are shot through with a silvery vein of liberty in the face of an intrusive state.
For Boris Johnson, it is an essential part of the English character that, when faced with pettifogging officialdom giving us orders, we tell the offending bureaucrat to bugger off.
Here is Boris in 2004 when Tony Blair was keen on a national ID card:
“If I am ever asked, on the streets of London, or in any other venue, public or private, to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am, when I have done nothing wrong and when I am simply ambling along and breathing God’s fresh air like any other freeborn Englishman, then I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded that I produce it.”
If Boris Johson has a personal philosophy, it is probably contained in those words. At least until the coronavirus, he saw himself, fame and Cabinet rank notwithstanding, as “simply ambling along and breathing God’s fresh air like any other freeborn Englishman”.
That view of the English character was visible in Johnson’s early, stumbling Covid-19 press conferences, when he resisted initial calls for lockdowns and the rest. “We live in a land of liberty,” he insisted on March 18th:
"We live in a land of liberty… we don't intend to pose… restrictions on people… but we will rule nothing out"
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) March 18, 2020
Not all of his now-famous resistance to lockdown was about personal politics. A big part of the expert calculations put to ministers was about how many people would reject restrictions on personal freedom, rendering lockdown ineffective. Some government advisers counselled that people would simply get bored and resentful about being told to stay at home, so ministers should be wary.
I doubt the behavioural scientists making that calculation explicitly considered Magna Carta, Coke, Blackstone and the “rights of Englishmen”, but the people whose behaviour they were attempting to predict are the inheritors of that tradition, knowingly or otherwise.
So what to make of the way we have largely accepted and obeyed a polite instruction to put ourselves under house arrest? Why is England, land of liberty, so happy to spend St George’s Day — and maybe many more days beyond — in lockdown?
The search for a definition of the English character is endless and largely fruitless. I used to write about England a lot (for a Scottish newspaper, the Scots often being more interested in Englishness than the English) and have sometimes wondered if the refusal to agree on a common idea of Englishness is, in fact, the defining characteristic of the nation.
Fortunately, there are much better thinkers than me who have looked at this question, doing work that might shed some light on the failure of freeborn Englishmen to resist orders to leave the pub and go home.
One of them is Paula Surridge of Bristol University, who studies the values that underpin voting behaviour and much else besides.
Last month, she spoke to the English Labour Network, which wants Labour to pay more attention to English identity and those voters who think it’s important. More on that in a minute.
Dr Surridge — whose work really should be followed by everyone interested in UK politics — has looked at voters and how they identify themselves. She finds that around 35% of the electorate in England consider themselves to be “very strongly English”.
Within that group, you will probably find the 20-odd % who, in other surveys, are identified as “English not British” or “more English than British”.
However you measure them, these people are very important, politically and otherwise. According to John Denham, a former Labour Cabinet minister who now studies Englishness and the English, almost all of the Labour voters who switched to the Tories last year are from that “very English” group. Until Labour reconnects with England and the English, he argues, it will never regain power. I think he’s probably right about that.
But how to do that? And what’s this got to do with lockdown? Back to Dr Surridge.
A lot of her research looks beyond traditional Left-Right divisions on economic questions and incorporates another scale of measuring attitudes: liberal-authoritarian.
Your position on that axis depends on your view of the following five statements:
- Young people don’t have enough respect for traditional values
- Censorship is necessary to uphold moral values
- We should be tolerant of those who lead unconventional lifestyles
- For some crimes the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence
- People who break the law should be given stiffer sentences”
The more strongly you agree with those, the further towards the “authoritarian” end of the scale you fall.
And guess what Dr Surridge found about the “very strongly English”, the group most likely to be celebrating St George’s Day today and to generally embrace Englishness in preference to other identities? The more English you feel, the more likely you are to say that the state and society should tell people what to do, to make them conform and, when they disobey, to punish them harshly.
This correlation between Englishness and authoritarian attitudes strikes me as fascinating, important and underexplored in a lot of political conversation — possibly, in part, because the Prime Minister who seems to appeal so much to authoritarian English voters is so keen to tell a story of them as freeborn lovers of liberty.
Johnson is not unaware of the importance of authoritarian inclinations, of course. Priti Patel isn’t Home Secretary because she likes Brexit. It’s because she used to like the death penalty.
On the other side of the Commons, I wonder what would happen if Sir Keir Starmer managed to reinvent himself as a hardline prosecutor of yobs and petty criminals and shifted Labour’s home affairs posture back to “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”? That might go some way to solving Labour’s very grave English problem.
As for lockdown, this is, of course, just my speculation, but it seems likely that people who think that the majority and its official representatives should be able to tell us all what to do would be willing to heed instructions to stay at home — even on their patron saint’s day. And to make sure others do too, hence all those calls to the police from people informing on others for such transgressions as walking the dog not once but twice a day. So numerous are those calls that the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) has had to urge the public to “exercise common sense and only report well-meaning concerns”.
In other words, the police in England, this land of liberty, have had to beg people to stop grassing up their neighbours to the authorities for “simply ambling along and breathing God’s fresh air like any other freeborn Englishman”.
Happy St George’s Day.