Will Someone Take Charge?

A child's hand is placed upon an adult's
Nanna Heitmann / Magnum

I can recall the moment I realized I was one of those strange people who wanted to be locked down.

It was day two in the neonatal ward, back in October. My daughter, my second child, had arrived a couple of weeks early at just five pounds, four ounces—a tiny dot of perfection. But tests had found that her blood sugar was low, and then she was jaundiced, so the hospital said she (as well as my wife and I) would have to stay for additional monitoring. My wife was desperate to go home and get settled into our new life, so being told we had to stay was a blow.

Yet as the doctor explained the situation to us, all I could think was that I wanted her to just take charge, to tell me what to do—and to keep us all in. I was strangely happy to be kept in the benign totalitarianism of a hospital ward. Why?

While we were there, Boris Johnson announced a new round of government restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus. I thought of that moment again last week, when the prime minister announced a sweeping new lockdown, Britain’s third since the pandemic began.

Then, as now, judging by the reaction to Johnson’s announcements, Britons’ main criticism was not about the impending removal of liberty, but that the restrictions had been too slow in coming, or that they did not go far enough. Like me, according to polling, the country was demanding a tighter grip.

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Before my daughter’s birth, I would have privately dismissed many of these people as curtain-twitching authoritarians, but was I any different? The promise of security lies at the heart of our collective bargain with the state. The state retains the authority to lock us up, take us to war, or even kill us if we pose enough of a threat. Upon winning office, many of our leaders assume the power to deploy drones and other weapons that can hover over villages thousands of miles away and drop bombs. At home, armed police officers have the authority to shoot people. The public generally backs the state’s possession of these powers. In fact, there is usually overwhelming support for leaders exhibiting themselves as the guarantors of law and order. The U.K. proudly publicizes its success in deporting criminals. Indeed, almost every Conservative government since World War II has styled itself as one of law and order, and the most successful Labour administration in that time, led by Tony Blair, campaigned on being tough on crime.

But, as we see today, security is not just about personal safety from violence or terrorism—it is a much broader concept. It is concerned with the defense of the realm, and of property, health, incomes, and savings. It takes in people’s community, their class, race, gender, religion, and ethnicity. It can be as ethereal as the security of a certain way of living, a culture or national identity. It is not a fixed concept, but constantly moving and politically contested, evolving as the perceived threat morphs over time. In the 1980s, security in Britain was concerned with inflation, and in the 1990s, crime. After 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings in London, it shifted to address the threat from terrorism. After the 2007–8 financial crisis, the British government intervened to guarantee the security of people’s savings.

At each turn, the public turned to the state to act as the ultimate guarantor of security, whether that meant cutting interest rates, hiking jail sentences, introducing “snooping” laws—or even legitimizing torture.

We now see governments deploying extraordinary powers over individuals to control the latest threat to security: the pandemic. And polling suggests that there is consent for the state to step in, to protect—just as I had wanted the doctor to step in to protect my family. Only over time, as the threat dissipates, do people start demanding a rebalancing of security and freedom (and resent the financial cost of security).

Faced with this reality, did my demand for greater security—the safety of the hospital ward—reflect a faith in the system, a signal that, despite the crisis of confidence at the heart of Britain’s seemingly never-ending political chaos, a fundamental degree of trust remained between ruler and ruled? I don’t think so. While I did trust the doctors looking after my wife and my daughter, and have never bought the idea that the government’s lockdowns would be a precursor to some permanent authoritarian environment, my reluctance to leave the hospital was a sign not of faith in the system, but of a lack of faith.

At the heart of my trepidation was the realization that outside the curtained walls of the hospital ward, Britain’s health system had all but disappeared; every available resource was geared toward fighting the coronavirus. My wife and I knew that once we left, we were on our own. Home visits from midwives—part of the postnatal system in this country—had been reduced; doctors’ surgeries were barely functioning; baby weigh-in services and breastfeeding clinics were gone. The whole system had been hacked back to its basics. If a problem did arise, we might get someone on the phone, but ultimately we’d just have to go back to the hospital and wait in line to be seen. The social scaffolding built over decades to support new parents had been temporarily dismantled.

For so long, we have thought of security in terms of door locks and police officers, the army and intelligence services, but in reality, security is much wider than that. It’s not only “bobbies on the beat” who offer the reassurance required for society to function, but midwives and community nurses, carers and general practitioners. During the pandemic, security has also included the state’s ability to track, trace, and isolate those infected with COVID-19, as well as more banal considerations such as supermarkets’ ability to maintain stocks of food and essentials, and the postal service’s capacity to keep mail flowing. The uniforms might be different, but the effect is the same: security.

The instinct for security is as old as time—a reflection of the Hobbesian bargain at the heart of all modern states. The Leviathan is supposed to free people from the nasty, brutish, and short lives that exist in the state of nature.

Instead, the British state’s response to this pandemic has been lamentable in too many areas. It has been among the most draconian, the least effective at saving lives, and the most economically damaging. The country revealed itself unable (or unwilling) to close its borders in time to restrict the virus’s spread; too slow to develop the tools to track it once it did; too ineffective in building the capacity necessary to find and quarantine those infected; and too weak to persuade society as a whole to adequately police itself. After decades of scandal and failure affecting almost every institution in Britain, there is now a crushing loss of faith in the system.

Thomas Hobbes was right that the good things in life—liberty and joy and hope—are the offspring of security. Freedom grows when people have faith in the order of things. A little part of us all, it seems to me, needs to know that a Leviathan is out there, somewhere.

The reality, I have now concluded, is that I am not a libertarian, and neither are most people. I am economically privileged and happen to live in a very safe part of the world, with a generally functioning state. Given these facts, I am remarkably free and enjoy being so. But faced with even the mildest degree of physical uncertainty and a state hacked back to its basics, I clung to authority.

A few days after my wife and I got home with our daughter, we received a call from the hospital: A new father had wandered into the postnatal ward with COVID-19 symptoms and subsequently tested positive. All the new mothers and their babies who had been there at the time would have to isolate for a week, and get a test if they showed any symptoms. Luckily for us, none came.

Apart from sheer bafflement at the man’s stupidity, it was hard to know what to make of this final plot twist. Ultimately, the state—or the hospital—can offer only a degree of protection. Security is never absolute; society is only as ordered as the people in it.

Anxiety is also natural, especially for new parents and people trudging through a pandemic. And when all is said and done, governments are not all-knowing, all-powerful Leviathans—thank God. Nevertheless, there are indications that all is not well with the system: Faced with severe pressure, the British state showed signs of buckling. Once the pandemic is past, a time for reflection will be due.