There are few dark enjoyments to be had in the present era, but perhaps the greatest is hearing politicians who have spent their lives dismissing immigration restrictions suddenly berating their opponents for not keeping the entire world at bay. For the position of such politicians appears to be that while you can’t prevent the movement of people over your borders — something that is just “inevitable” — you can somehow prevent a virus carried by humans.
Such is the position of the British Labour Party, which in both its Blair and Corbyn incarnations gave the impression that all moves towards immigration restrictionism constituted some form of racism; even if it wasn’t spelled out, it was heavily implied. Yet here we are in 2021, with the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Home Secretary repeatedly berating the Government for not sealing our borders more comprehensively.
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This week Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, joining the rush to turn Britain into a hermit kingdom, criticised the Government for failing to shut down flights from India, and the position of the official opposition now appears to be that Britain should be entirely quarantined from the rest of the world. Keir Starmer used the opportunity of Prime Minister´s Questions to again complain that there are too many people coming into the country and that the hotel quarantine system was not brought in early enough and is not widespread. It is all quite a turnaround.
And yet what else could they do? The job of an official opposition is to oppose, after all. And the Labour Party has decided to do its opposing by portraying the present Government as lax about our borders. As with all areas of Covid policy, its position — and that of our country’s other, semi-official opposition, the SNP – is not that the Government is doing the wrong thing, but that whatever it’s doing, it should be doing more.
It is a stance, at least. But it is interesting that the Labour Opposition (or indeed any opposition) continuously comes at the Government from the direction of greater caution and rarely if ever presents the opposite line of attack.
In the whole political debate over Covid and Britain’s response to it, it is striking that there has been almost no counter-pressure from the other side of the debate. While there is plenty of pressure on the Government to be more cautious, there is none at a party-political level urging the Government to be more favourable towards the case for liberty.
Here the comparison with the Covid debate in the United States is striking. While Dr Anthony Fauci enjoyed a reign of near-complete reverence for a time, politicians and pundits now routinely pour scorn on the chief medical officer for urging people to wear masks in an empty room even after being vaccinated, for people to double and triple mask, to wear a mask outside, to wear a mask alone in a forest.
In the UK, by contrast, the mask debate seems to remain where it always has been, with Members of Parliament and other leading figures sticking religiously to the wearing of masks at all point. In contrast to the United States, no one seems to have in any way questioned whether post-vaccine mask-wearing has any point to it other than theatre.
While Dr Fauci’s wisdom is questioned openly, Britain is haunted by the presence of Prof Neil Ferguson, who repeatedly returns to our screens like a bad horror movie. Rarely has any expert in British life been more wrong about so many major things, and yet still he crops up, where he is given a respectful audience at government level and by most of the media. His latest appearance has seen him warning — with the Prime Minister following suit — that the Indian variant of Covid might necessitate delaying the end of lockdown. But what is striking is not just that Ferguson gets away with repeatedly being wrong, but that his constant urges for greater caution are not balanced by any force urging the opposite.
In the US the dispute over masks and reopening has followed largely along predictable Red State/Blue State lines. Republican-run Florida has barely shut down and the rest of the United States has been watching with interest, concern and envy to see whether the Floridians suffer an excess mortality rate, benefit from keeping their economy alive, or both. You may say that in America the issue has been over-politicised, and indeed it has, with mask-wearing having become a sign of tribal affiliation among Democrat voters while a type of blitheness towards Covid has been a badge of honour among large swathes of Republican voters. But at least the argument is occurring; in Britain there is almost nothing.
Without the political pressure coming from organised pro-liberty forces, the British Government has throughout the pandemic had an unhindered ability to be as cautious as it likes about reopening the economy and allowing the general public to get back to our lives. We have had a constant drip-feed of warnings from Boris, the BBC and others that if we are not careful then the right to drink a pint of beer inside a pub, a right only just recently returned to us, might once again be taken away. And all this is accepted mildly without political complaint.
Having spent a portion of the past year in the US, I am by no means certain that the British approach is the healthier one. For instance, is it especially healthy that when the Prime Minister ponders whether lockdown-easing will remain on track that there is no significant political pressure on him to stick to the timeline he has laid out?
Is it healthy for British politics that when the Government and BBC tell us how, where and when we might hug our loved ones, which direction to face, how often to do it and what settings one might do it in, there is only the sound of dull acceptance or audible gratitude from grateful subjects? I am not certain that it is.
And what about the Government briefings to the media that, because some people have chosen not to get vaccinated, therefore the lifting of lockdown could be delayed? Doubtless this provides some pressure on members of the public to get their jabs, but why is there no political pressure on the Government telling them about their obligations? Why is no one telling them: “You told us yourselves that the vaccine is the way out of lockdown. Those who have chosen not to get vaccinated have chosen to take their own risks, and we cannot allow them to keep the rest of us back.” Instead there is a competition to be more cautious than the next politician.
It is the same with the question of foreign travel. As Freddie Sayers argued here yesterday, the Government’s latest quandary is over the question of international travel. While it is legal to travel to so-called “amber” countries, members of the Government now say that we should not do so.
Health Minister James Bethell said on Times Radio that “Travelling is dangerous. Travelling is not for this year. Please stay in the country.” And once again this advice landed into a political vacuum. Doubtless Labour, the SNP and others will seek to find a moment to berate the Government for not having made travel to amber countries illegal, or for not imprisoning everybody who returns from such a country.
But there will be no organised political opposition pointing out that the whole point of the amber part of the traffic-light system is that these are countries which people can visit.
Perhaps it was understandable this time last year that there was a degree of unity in British politics. Perhaps it was also understandable that non-scientists and others deferred to the pandemic experts for a period. But it seems unhealthy that at this stage of the pandemic, with all that we know about the virus and vaccine, that the British political scene still lacks any organised force pressuring the Government to restore our liberties as soon as possible. In the to-and-fro of British politics it seems as though the cause of freedom is having trouble finding defenders. It is about time she got them again.