Phil Shannon’s recent essay “The Virus, Lockdown and the Left,” eviscerates the left for supporting lockdowns, social distancing and mass vaccinations and, especially, for failing to protect the poor, who are most exposed to the harms of these draconian interventions. Here, we present a parallel analysis, focusing on the right.
Conservativism traditionally extols a combination of pragmatism and the tried and tested. Conservatives strive to conserve liberties; allegiance to family, faith and flag; and rule by consent. There are tensions between free market libertarians and social conservatives, but generally the right is opposed to state interference and overzealous taxation, believing that government should only do what citizens and communities cannot do for themselves: providing a tax-funded health service, for example, but not an ever-expanding bureaucracy with petty regulations and penalties.
Covid-19 has exposed fallacies, paradoxes and ironies in the self-declared political ideals of many public figures, including liberals who have taken to lockdown like ducks to water and conservatives who have not opposed a radical and unprecedented level of interference in people’s lives.
Initial Reactions to Lockdown
By the spring of 2020, the Covid-19 outbreak had caused a surge in demand for intensive care and more than half of those admitted to the ICUs were dying. In response, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown on 23 March. This dramatic decision precipitously deprived people of their right to conduct normal social activities. Schools closed, followed by pubs and places of worship. London and provincial city centres were deserted, as legions of office staff worked from home, while other workers were furloughed and foreign tourism evaporated.
At the time, the majority of the British public supported the government action, which was portrayed as a necessity based on the science, as emphasised at press conferences by the chief scientist, medical advisor and deputies. Mainstream media backed the emergency response and played an important role in urging compliance. No members of parliament opposed the lockdown, either at Westminster or in the devolved chambers of Cardiff and Edinburgh.
Among the few dissidents of the early days was Peter Hitchens, a trenchant opponent of the Conservative Party for what he saw as its failure to be conservative. In his Mail on Sunday column, Hitchens was scathing of Johnson’s government for effectively placing people under house arrest. Other critics included former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption, Laura Perrins, editor of the Conservative Woman website, and Toby Young, whose Lockdown Sceptics bulletin was an oasis for people who thought that Covid-19 was no worse than a bad strain of influenza or regarded the state response as grossly disproportionate to the actual risk.
As the virus passed its peak in April, more critics emerged. Although the overlap was incomplete, there was a tendency for Remainers to agree with lockdown, while Leavers were disproportionately sceptical. Perhaps this demonstrated the new schism in society: the replacement of the old left-right divide by what David Goodhart has called anywheres and somewheres: the former of whom have a cosmopolitan outlook, while the latter value traditional social bonds. Brexit demonstrated that somewheres didn’t like being told what to do by bureaucrats in Brussels, and now many are reacting in the same way to the diktats of the Covid regime.
In February 2021, Hitchens dismayed some anti-lockdowners by publicising the fact that he has received a Covid-19 vaccine and declaring that his side had lost. Indeed, no mass uprising has ensued over the restrictions imposed on people’s lives, and the opinion polls Hitchens cited show strong support for lockdown, masks and vaccination. But Hitchens failed to consider the validity of these polls and the small but steadily growing resistance, as seen in the shifting discourse on social media.
Hitchens named two prominent journalists whom he believed could have made a difference: Charles Moore of the Daily Telegraph and Douglas Murray of the Spectator. Both have been reticent on the lockdown. Meanwhile, lockdowns have been enthusiastically embraced by Brexit-supporting conservatives Tom Harwood of the Guido Fawkes website and Daily Telegraph writers Robert Colville and Andrew Lilico. Daily Mail columnists Stephen Glover and Richard Littlejohn have endorsed vaccine restrictions for travel and work, as have Spectator pieces, leading some readers to cancel their subscriptions in disgust.
From Conservatism to Conserving the Establishment
For Littlejohn, who has tenaciously ridiculed government interference in the form of “elf ‘n safety” culture to extol the virtues of mass vaccination might be considered something of a volte-face. Conservatives are meant to be guardians of heritage and liberties in a Burkean society of “little platoons.” Lockdown and social distancing are destroying our cultural assets, particularly the unique British institution of the pub.
Under emergency conditions, the legal tradition of Magna Carta and common law have been superseded by statutory instruments rushed through with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, changing established understandings of the relationship between citizen and state overnight. Ironically, post-Brexit Britain appears to have imported the Napoleonic code, where no action is allowed until expressly permitted in law. Perhaps freedoms will be reinstated when the emergency provisions are deemed unnecessary, but the proposed vaccine passport and hints of further lockdowns suggest that the curtailment of civil liberties will persist, possibly ad infinitum.
Why, therefore, have so many on the right embraced lockdown politics?
The Doctrine of the Supreme Emergency
The doctrine of the supreme emergency is an extension of Michael Walzer’s thinking about just war, which holds that in times of extraordinary threat it is permissible to enact exceptional measures provided the actions are temporary and proportionate. The concept grants moral permission to override norms in the face of an extinction level threat. War provides the most obvious rationale for this and it is interesting to note how the rhetoric of winning the fight against the pandemic and beating the enemy has been applied by the government.
Steve Baker MP encapsulated such thinking in his March 2020 speech to the House of Commons on the passing of the Coronavirus Bill, in which he lamented that the legislation would create a “dystopian society … a command society,” but added, “libertarian though I may be, this is the right thing to do,” concluding that “we ought not to allow this situation to endure one moment longer than is absolutely necessary to save lives and preserve jobs.”
Invoking notions of supreme emergency engenders the idea of the politician as a responsible representative, prepared to override ideology or manifesto commitments to prioritise lives at risk. This tends to play well with the public. The political reality, however, is less noble. Politicians are creatures anxious to gain and hold on to power. The extreme Covid restrictions were supposedly justified by the deadliness of the disease, but the estimated fatality rate of 0.23 per cent casts doubt on whether a supreme emergency is, or was ever, justified.
A more plausible reason why lockdown appealed to politicians on the right is that they were afraid of being blamed for Covid deaths by an increasingly hysterical media. Dire images of Italian hospitals overwhelmed by the influx of Covid cases perhaps caused otherwise liberty-minded politicians like Boris Johnson to junk their prepared pandemic strategy of targeted isolation of the elderly and herd immunity, in fear of public opprobrium should such scenes recur in Britain. Opinion polling indicated high levels of support for lockdown and the unequivocal stay home, protect the NHS, save lives message. This could easily be squared within a more authoritarian strand of conservative thought that accentuates security over freedom.
“Ever Bought a Fake Picture, Toby?”
As George Smiley in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy knows, the more you pay for a forgery the less inclined you will be to doubt its authenticity. Likewise, the greater the human and economic costs of lockdown, the more difficult it became for politicians on the right to acknowledge that they might have been mistaken.
The left’s love of top-down state management meant that supporting an authoritarian lockdown did not undermine its ideological position. For the right, the increasing costs to the economy, and other sunk costs, such as the loss of basic freedoms, increased numbers of suicides, delayed diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening diseases such as cancer, the damage to children’s education, etc. were hard to defend except by doubling down on the belief that it was a price worth paying. This could explain why the Conservative Party has abandoned fiscal rectitude to accept mind-boggling levels of national debt.
Saved by Brexit
The Right has been rescued from its Covid trap by Brexit. Exerting its post-Brexit independence to develop and approve vaccines outside the structures of the EU, the UK has been able to race ahead of the rest of Europe. The ineptitude of the EU’s performance—its sheer incompetence, rule-tied plodding, vaccine nationalism and petty malevolence over the British developed Astra-Zeneca vaccine and the Northern Ireland border seems to have proven the Leave faction right. The rapid rollout has spurred vaccine optimism on the right. Daniel Hannan, former member of the European Parliament, and financial commentator James Bartholemew are chipper about Britain’s prospects in a post-Covid world, with its world-leading high tech industries.
Associating vaccine prowess with Brexit has enticed patriotic folk such as Daily Express readers to proudly take their shot of Covid repellent. However, jingoism has limited appeal, and the doubts of at least a quarter of the populace about the need for Covid-19 vaccination persist. Proposals for a vaccine passport, not only for international travel but also for regular activities such as going to a concert, football match or restaurant, worry conservatives who believe in liberty and minimal state interference. Some critics suspect that the virus and vaccine are being exploited to introduce a comprehensive digital identity system. Electors of a Conservative administration infused with the characteristic optimism of Boris Johnson may be bemused by this apparent shift to a surveillance state, more akin to the Chinese communist system than the Enlightenment values of Western society. Brexit, a matter of intense national debate, suddenly seems less important.
The Conservative Party has traditionally appealed to a broader constituency than that achieved by socialists or progressives. Yet social class tensions are never far from the surface, and Conservative MPs must work hard to maintain the trust of working-class voters, who may readily revert to perceptions of the Tory toff lacking in awareness and empathy.
The term snob is now rarely heard in public discourse, but snobbery is still rampant—though its form has changed. By the 1980s, as consumerism made luxury goods and services widely accessible, signifiers of social status changed from material to moral assets. The intelligentsia display their superiority in cosmopolitan values of tolerance, identity politics and multiculturalism, which prevail in the education system, the media and politics (all of which are dominated by the graduate middle class). To prosper in a career in most public institutions and corporate entities, any aspirant of conservative bent must learn to mask her beliefs and to engage in virtue-signalling for politically correct causes.
Lockdown, masks and vaccination have become moral matters, battles between supposedly good, caring citizens on the one hand and selfish covidiots and conspiracy theorists on the other. Daily Telegraph columnist Judith Woods, for example, has described parents who oppose masks for schoolchildren as “cretinous Covid-deniers,” “selfish nutters,” “criminally loopy” members of a “brainwashed anti-vaxx brigade.” To be socially acceptable, a public figure must not only conform to the Covid regime but also morally enforce it.
The stigmatising of lockdown sceptics provides a new outlet for class snobbery. Some conservative writers, judging by their Twitter exchanges, would like bars and restaurants to keep out the great unwashed. A status upgrade is offered to those with the means and morality to navigate the new normal. Did this attitude emerge from the pandemic, or was it always lurking beneath the surface? Tom Harwood, who declares himself as a libertarian, would not have written before last year that people refusing the flu vaccine should be barred from holidaying abroad or downing a pint at their local tavern. Apparently, some conservatives have swerved from One Nation to quasi-medical apartheid on the basis of one viral outbreak.
Utilitarianism versus Deontology
“First do no harm” states the Hippocratic Oath. But this conservative principle is being stretched by the Covid response, as medical expertise is cited to impose mask-wearing and mass vaccinations, though there is little evidence in favour of the former, and the latter is an experimental intervention overriding established standards of drug development and informed consent. Shannon criticises the “needless gamble with vaccines,” arguing that “the Left has now abandoned both science and medical ethics and has become an enabler of mega-profits for Big Pharma, an industry the Left would once have rightly scorned for its greed, deep-pocketed political influence-buying and risk of medical harm.” Social conservatives should also be concerned, because a global regime of obligatory seasonal vaccines is brazenly utilitarian.
Modern medicine is guided by deontology, the theory of duty and obligations, which prioritises individual rights and the sanctity of life. One patient should not be sacrificed for the benefit of others. Utilitarianism, by contrast, is the pursuit of the greater good. In practice, this concept has been exploited by totalitarian states. What is good is not necessarily decided by the people, but by their unchecked rulers, as in communist systems and military dictatorships. Taking the vaccine is promoted as a virtuous act: doing one’s duty as a citizen. But adverse reactions are inevitable. From a deontological perspective, a vaccine for a condition of low risk should harm no healthy person. Meanwhile, the manufacturers have been safely inoculated from liability.
Why have many on the right put all their faith in the vaccine? They celebrate the rapid development of vaccines as “a miracle of science,” but this is a naïve view. Conservatives are usually conscious of Robert K. Merton’s law of unintended consequences, which bedevils progressive social engineers. They foresee the damage caused by state interference in social norms and relations. But some conservatives are drawn to discipline, and to exclusivity based on moral criteria.
Populism: The Establishment Strikes Back
Boris Johnson has been criticised for not doing enough, particularly by the increasingly left-wing medical profession. Caricatured as a buffoon, he was pushed into imposing lockdown against his previously expressed will. He continues to be blamed for the relatively high death toll in the UK. In his analysis, Shannon notes that the left was keen to burst the perceived populist balloons of Brexit Britain, Trump’s America and Bolsanaro’s Brazil. Throughout the Trump administration, few conservative commentators wrote anything less than scathing about a president who was brash but undoubtedly popular across a large demographic. Trump was blamed for the US supposedly having the worst Covid mortality in the world, although it is actually about tenth in deaths per million, while by far the worst Covid fatalities have occurred in Democrat-run states.
British libertarian commentators like Christopher Snowdon seem to accept the accusation that Boris Johnson’s delayed lockdown doubled the number of deaths. This is highly debatable. You cannot prove a negative. Moreover, evidence shows that such extreme interventions do little to stop viral spread, while causing severe social and economic damage. Just as some politicians and pundits on the near right have disassociated themselves from Brexit and Trump, they see lockdown scepticism as another populist menace. The socially acceptable position is to support the national effort and to celebrate the NHS. The pandemic has become another battle in the culture war, and some conservatives seem very keen not to be taken prisoner.
Conservatives have continued to criticise the abuse of power in other countries, such as Thailand and Hong Kong. However, their concern is selective. When Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab complained about Russian police breaking up a political rally in Moscow, he was reminded on social media that the same right was currently denied to his compatriots. Civil liberties are appropriated by the government to use as an incentive, like a release for good behaviour. Meanwhile some on the right have become as censorious as the left in backing the removal of legitimate opinion and inconvenient truths (“dangerous disinformation”) on social media. The lack of outcry about police brutality against peaceful protestors is particularly difficult to reconcile. Perhaps the motive is self-preservation. Lockdown is opposed intensely by a vociferous minority, who could gain momentum, and anyone who supports it may want insurance against a coming backlash; hence the unanimous passing of the Policing Bill in March 2021, which allows for the potential imprisonment of any protestor who causes annoyance.
Lockdown has overturned social and political certainties. The left, while committed to state intervention, has largely abandoned its working-class base and its concern with civil liberties, and as Shannon has noted, seems unperturbed by the boost in the wealth of the richest 1 per cent caused by lockdown. On the other hand, large sections of the right are now amenable to the prospect of a basic universal income, as if total dependence on the state is laudable. The Conservative Party, which has always prided itself on financial stewardship, unlike spendthrift Labour, appears to have taken its hands off the tiller. It is possible that the right will revert to its core beliefs in the freedom of the individual but the manner in which both mainstream right and left have coalesced around the anti-democratic principles of lockdown over the past year remains worrying for those who maintain that plurality of opinion is the life blood of any open society.