September 15, 2020 - 3:00pm

Is the economy more important than a child’s birthday party? From one perspective, the answer is of course ‘yes’. But the value judgement implicit in imposing severe restrictions on privately organised gatherings, while leaving schools, businesses and now even grouse shooting unaffected, is going to rebound badly on Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

I admit to a personal beef here: I just had to cancel my daughter’s fourth birthday party because of the ‘rule of six’. But what’s making people angry is not a sense of arbitrariness but of a government that can’t see the value of anything that doesn’t contribute to the exchequer.

The only consistent theme I can detect in which activities are included or excluded from the Rule of Six is whether or not you can make money out of it. There’s no other way to explain why organised sports are fine, but a kickabout in the park is banned.

Last weekend my daughter’s friend turned four and held a birthday party the day before the Rule of Six came into effect. I did a quick straw poll among the other parents there, on perceptions of the new rule. The result suggested that even in true-blue Conservative Bedfordshire, public consent is wafer-thin. When one of the most law-abiding and cautious mums I know sends me this meme, it’s clear to me that the public really isn’t on Johnson’s side now:

The meme catches a widespread and resentful perception in this part of the world. The view is that Johnson has decided to control the virus by reducing human interaction somewhere, and concluded that the most expendable interactions are those that don’t involve commercial exchange. That is, the place to clamp down is on friends, family, children, informal gatherings — those connections, in other words, that make ordinary life rich and full of meaning.

Charitably, Johnson seems to be trying to square the circle of Thatcherite economic liberalism and today’s calls for greater social solidarity. He’s doing so by telling us we have a communitarian obligation to curb our private social activities, so we don’t have to curb our economic ones. Because it seems only economic activity is understood as contributing to the common good. It’s our communitarian duty to Spend for Britain.

But of course this is a circle that can’t be squared. Because the economic liberalism that still runs strongly in Tory veins relies precisely on the dissolution of social bonds, via the ‘creative destruction’ of the market. Communitarian economic liberalism is an absurdity. No wonder even Bedfordshire’s tribal Tory voters are baffled and outraged.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.