A pandemic in Boris Johnson’s ‘Land of Liberty’

The UK government is holding daily news conferences on the Coronavirus pandemic, and yesterday the Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded to a question about further restrictions on the public – such as limiting public transport – like this:

We live in a land of liberty, as you know, and it’s one of the great features of our lives that we don’t tend to impose those sorts of restrictions on people in this country…

It was typically romantic rhetoric from Johnson, although it was an incongruous moment in a press conference dominated by scientific analysis and practical policy announcements.




The remark stuck out for me, since it is very reminiscent of the type of rhetoric I encounter when studying Britain in the eighteenth century. As I wrote about in my new book Citizenship and Gender in Britain, political culture in this period emphasised the liberties of the freeborn Englishman, and celebrated these rights as unique and enshrined in the ancient constitution. (This political culture was exported to the American colonies and ironically inspired the revolution against British rule: since this was the founding moment of the republic, this libertarian rhetoric retains an even greater purchase in the USA today than it does here.)

This was historically interesting, then, but arguably it sheds some light on British (and indeed American) responses to the Coronavirus pandemic, in contrast with other parts of the world. While many other countries closed schools and public buildings, stopped holding public events and required citizens to remain in their homes, they looked on with bafflement as Britain appeared to carry on as usual.

As late as last weekend, Britain carried out very little testing, imposed minimal restrictions, and kept pubs and schools open. Half-hearted free market solutions, such as using Deliveroo to take meals to older people, were floated. When on Monday the government changed tack after widespread public outcry, it issued advice to avoid pubs and cinemas – but did not require them actually to close.

In general, this bespoke a reluctance to tell people what to do. Even the government scientists’ own modelling took ‘behavioural fatigue’ into account: people tire of control measures, so if you start them too early then people will start disobeying them early too.

Historically, the British state has been wary of imposing anything on its citizens that could be seen to infringe their liberty. To take an issue that I have researched, the state has historically been reluctant to impose military conscription. The wars of the eighteenth century made huge manpower demands, not least because Britain’s primary rival France could always threaten to invade. But such was the horror of conscription, that the British instead relied on voluntarist initiatives and legal fudges to get men under arms. Naval impressment and the militia ballot were conscription in all but name, but gave the impression of community service and libertarianism. The remarkable thing about these responses was their effectiveness: while Revolutionary and Napoleonic France assembled huge conscripted armies, Britain got a similar proportion of its population under arms through largely voluntarist means. And it continued to avoid full conscription until things got really desperate in 1916.

The British model of citizenship tends to place the emphasis upon the citizen’s rights, whereas in many republican traditions abroad this is outweighed by the citizen’s obligations to the state. France, Italy and Spain are near neighbours facing similar problems, but their governments have had no compunction about imposing tight infection control measures, and enforcing them with their police services. It remains to be seen whether, as the situation worsens here, the British government will act in the same way.

Perhaps they won’t need to. It was striking how the government U-turned on Monday after their weeks of inaction prompted an outcry from the public and the media. People started to change their behaviour without being told to: sporting bodies led the way here, cancelling fixtures and tournaments, and fans accepted it. I’m not going to credit the government with doing this deliberately, but the public seemed happier doing something once they had made up their own minds, rather than because they were required to.

As a coda, Brexit Britain has been wallowing in Second World War nostalgia. Expect to hear a lot more about ‘the people’s war’, as plucky citizens do their bit in a time of national emergency. We’re all in this together, apparently. Except that recent scenes of panic buying have echoes of the black-marketeering, rule-breaking and looting that took place during the rationing regime of the mid-twentieth century…

Matthew McCormack

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