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  • Alastair Cavendish

A Shameful Conquest

In Saki’s 1913 novel, When William Came, Murray Yeovil returns from a long convalescence in Russia to find England under German occupation. A skirmish in East Africa had escalated suddenly into war, in which the Kaiser’s victory was so swift and so complete that the Germans themselves seemed unprepared for it. By the time of Yeovil’s return, this conquest is universally accepted in London society as “the fait accompli.” All signs and announcements are in German and English, and as soon as Yeovil attempts to go out for a morning stroll, he is fined three shillings for walking on the grass in Hyde Park.

When I returned to London in July, after a year in China, the relentless twenty-first century media had left me a great deal more thoroughly informed than Yeovil was, or I wanted to be, about the events of the previous few months. Nonetheless, first contact with London was a shock, and the comparisons with Saki’s novel were irresistible. A plethora of notices on every wall and window, along with large circular stickers on the ground, told one where to walk and where to stand, while public address systems and officials barked orders about wearing face coverings and social distancing. Oddly enough, there had been much less of this in China. I had to remind myself that I was arriving home in a Western democracy, having left the totalitarian country where the coronavirus originated.

This is emphatically not a defence of the Chinese Communist Party, a despicable regime which grows more brutal and authoritarian by the day. There is no doubt that the government of China handled the pandemic with typical callousness, then suborned the World Health Organisation into defending them. People in Wuhan, and many other areas, were treated barbarously. My own experience, however, is that Shanghai at the height of the pandemic was calmer and more civilized than London when the virus was in decline, and that normal life was resumed more quickly and enthusiastically in China than in Britain.

The government of China, at any rate, has the advantage of being shrouded in mystery. The British government might more aptly be described as being cloaked in confusion. The herd immunity strategy was suddenly abandoned for an unprecedented policy of putting the entire population under house arrest. If the term “house arrest” seems alarmist, the actual word employed by the government and the media was even more draconian. A “lockdown” is a policy for dealing with prison riots, in which inmates are forced into solitary confinement in their cells, and denied the use of common areas until it is deemed safe to let them out. The government was not slow to start describing people going about their daily lives as rioting criminals, and treating them accordingly.

The role of legislation in the ensuing chaos is not widely understood. It is best elucidated by beginning with a principle that seems counterintuitive to many: tyrannical regimes are generally marked not by tough laws, but by weak and flexible ones. This is because these weak, flexible laws can be interpreted in whichever way benefits the interpreter, while doing nothing to protect the citizen. The laws issued by government decree during the pandemic, without the scrutiny of parliament, provide a perfect example. They are so feeble that government, media and public now refer to them as “rules,” as though Dominic Cummings had been discovered cheating at Monopoly. Take the “rules” surrounding the wearing of face masks in shops, for instance. These, inexplicably, came into force on the 24th of July, by which time you could have thrown bricks by the hour on the most crowded beaches in England without hitting anyone afflicted with coronavirus.

The government rules, while providing for a fine of up to £3,200 for failing to wear a face covering in shops, supermarkets, and a whole host of other places, contain a list of exemptions for those unable to wear masks. This list is non-exhaustive, but still contains what appears to be a catch-all provision: you are exempt “where putting on, wearing or removing a face-covering will cause you severe distress.” There is no definition, medical or otherwise, of severe distress. It seems, therefore, as though all you have to do to claim exemption from these rules is to claim “I would be severely distressed to have to wear a face mask.” It is not at all clear to me how the shopkeeper, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, or anyone else, might attempt to falsify this claim. How can they know what causes you distress?

Given this gaping hole of an exemption, one might wonder whether there is any point in making these rules in the first place. Surely the fines, however large, are essentially voluntary contributions, payable only by those who wish to prove a point. So far as there are any reasons for making such deliberately unenforceable rules, three seem fairly obvious. The first is that the government must be seen to be doing something. This is something, therefore they have done it. The second is that the many of the police have shown themselves willing to act in accordance with the pronouncements of ministers and with what they regard as public sentiment, rather than with the letter or the spirit of the law. This by itself is one of the hallmarks of a totalitarian state.

Neither of these is a good reason, but the third possibility is the most dangerous, as well as the most controversial. The government is hoping that those citizens who are most afraid of the pandemic, and who have a natural propensity for self-righteous scolding, will act as its enforcers. Most of these people will not have read the rules, let alone the exemptions, and will be only too happy to bark at those shoppers so inconsiderate as to bare their lips and noses in Sainsbury’s. The government has managed to turn shopping into a political act.

Saki’s picture of London under German occupation was one in which most of the conquered people were physically comfortable, and only the sensitive few were morally uneasy. A cruder writer would have depicted Britons being marched off to death camps and little girls mercilessly pistol-whipped by soldiers. Instead, the Kaiser allows the British to grow accustomed to their servitude slowly and easily. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many British people, drunk on Kipling and the glories of empire, saw themselves as a fierce, martial race. Saki, however, understood that most of the ruling classes cared far more for comfort than for freedom, and would willingly relinquish the latter to retain the former.

The problem with the creeping authoritarianism of the British government is that it is, for the moment, fairly subtle. The rules, for the moment, are easy to evade. If you did not want to remain under house arrest during the lockdown, you could simply say that you were taking exercise, or shopping. If you do not wish to wear a face mask now, the law requiring you to do so is feeble enough to be flouted without fear of a fine. The point is that we have accepted the principle that the government can tell us to stay in our houses and cover our mouths, and can curb our freedoms in a myriad of other pettifogging ways, which together add up to tyranny. No foreign power has invaded the country. The British populace, or at least a very noisy and sanctimonious segment of it, is all too eager to be subjugated. As Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt put it:

That England that was wont to conquer others

Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

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