The British state itself is similarly veiled in convention and ceremony, its power and legitimacy ultimately rooted in public consent rather than force. This is Britain’s grand bargain: authorities only as powerful as their legitimacy—very powerful at times, very weak at others. Consent is a measure that naturally ebbs and flows with events and the government’s handling of them. It can produce the force and certainty of Margaret Thatcher, and the calamitous vacuum of Theresa May.
The very ties that bind the state’s power, though, also reinforce it. When public consent for its authority exists, expressed with a solid majority in the House of Commons, there are few limits on the British executive; its power is constrained only by politics and convention, a liberal political culture, and established, albeit comparatively weaker, institutions. And while customs, conventions, and norms are traditionally seen as guarantors of stability, they can also be used as tools of change. The historian Peter Ackroyd writes in Foundation, a history of England, that custom is the “essential feature” of the country. Instead of fighting customs, skillful rulers in British history have used them to advance new ends. “Any institutional or administrative change, introduced by the king and council, had to be explained as a return to some long-lost tradition,” Ackroyd writes. “Any innovation that had endured for twenty or thirty years then in turn became part of ancient custom.” Thus, the British constitution weaves back through time, each knot connected to something before, but always changing. The Bill of Rights of 1689, establishing the supremacy of Parliament, is connected to the Magna Carta, which itself, Ackroyd writes, is linked to a “haphazard collection of principles” that existed before that. Change is veiled in continuity.
Today, new norms are being established, executive powers exercised, and police guidance issued. In time, case law will develop, legislation will be passed, political pledges made, and national stories told. Changes, adaptations, and innovations will imprint themselves on our collective consciousness. Many of these powers and ways of working will outlast the current moment and apply to the next in ways we cannot foresee.
Through the course of this lockdown, then, innovations risk stealthily becoming part of our established way of life because we have become used to them and have (temporarily) consented to their introduction: digital surveillance, perhaps, or police drones. At their most fundamental, these changes might also mean the normalization of freedom being enjoyed by some and not others for reasons of biology rather than behavior.
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“The risk in situations like this is, you get used to it,” David Davis, a libertarian and former Conservative cabinet minister, told me. “When we get to the end of this pandemic, [the authorities] will talk about the next pandemic and will be unwilling to get rid of the powers they’ve now got. Whenever you get into one of these situations, there’s a danger of an involuntary reset—a reset of our constitutional standards, in which some norms get wiped.”