Is Britain too freedom-loving for a lockdown? It appears that the government thought so. According to Fraser Nelson, Boris Johnson assumed that much of the country would ignore his urgings to stay at home. That was why these “exhortations were issued with such vigour” — the prime minister thought he had to bellow to a populace which covers its ears when told what to do.
Instead, Nelson wrote, “we’ve become as obedient as Swedes while the Swedes – in their collective refusal to lock down – are behaving like Brits.” This helps to explain why Boris wrung his hands about what he called “the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub.” The government edged nervously towards the current restrictions, under the impression that the citizenry would need a lot more persuading.
To some, this delay is another crime to be chalked up to Tory stupidity. As Fintan O’Toole put it in the Guardian, Boris had fallen for the Brexiteer “fantasy” that Britain has “a unique and defining love of personal freedom as a badge of nationhood”. The idea of Britons’ “innate, genetic resistance to conformity is a myth,” O’Toole wrote. After all, Brits famously love a queue.
So who are the British? Johnson’s doughty individualists or O’Toole’s run-of-the-mill conformists? The reality, surely, is both, in a curious and ironic mixture. Historically, the national stance towards authority has been deeply paradoxical. (I’m pretty sure Peter Ackroyd makes a version of this argument in Albion — if only I could check that in the library.) We have, for instance, had countless popular rebellions but no revolution; if the revolution ever happened, George Orwell predicted, it would abolish the House of Lords but keep the monarchy, and “leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere.”
All right, there’s more to Britishness than Orwell essays. But you can find the same contradictions much earlier. Think of St Thomas More saying, shortly before the axe came down on his neck, that he was “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” That could be heard as an expression of loyalty or as an act of defiance; and in a sense, it was both. Or think of Samuel Johnson, who penned one of the classic tributes to English “insolence” but stood for order and authority, and was suspicious of eccentrics despite clearly being one himself. Or of Shakespeare’s Henry V, who goes in disguise among his soldiers to find out what they really think of him. It turns out they are cynical about his motives and his integrity, but fully prepared “to fight lustily for him.”
The response to the lockdown has been paradoxical in the same way. Britons have downed tools and stayed inside with remarkable docility. But on the other hand, when have the police received more public criticism and mistrust than over the last fortnight? The British and their freedoms: it’s as complicated as everything else to do with the coronavirus.