Read: Britain failed. Again.
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).
Read: Britain’s vaccine nationalism
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.