Scotland, Awake! An Autocracy Awaits You

As I have repeatedly warned on this blog – ‘Mobilising for War’, ‘Sleepwalking into Totalitarianism’ – that it is much easier to declare an emergency than it is to end one, much easier for a state to appropriate powers to itself than for it to relinquish them.  No better illustration of this now comes from Scotland, where the Scottish Government wants its emergency coronavirus powers to become permanent.  If permitted, this would include the ability – without any democratic scrutiny – to order schools to close, impose lockdowns, release prisoners early and operate virtual courts. 

This is only the latest step in the slow hollowing out, in the name of ‘the COVID emergency’, of the liberal democratic heritage and institutions of the British nation.  No lesser an authority that Lord Jonathan Sumption, former Justice of the UK Supreme Court, has described these last 18 months as witnessing “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country”, where the British state – not the UK Parliament, no the British state – has “exercised coercive powers over its citizens on a scale never previously attempted”. 

As the late socialist MP Tony Benn continually reminded us, Britain is only a democracy so long as the sovereignty of the People is exercised through their elected representatives voting in Parliament.  Remove, or by-pass, Parliament — as the ministers of Scotland’s SNP Government now want to do – and you replace a democracy with an autocracy. 

What has continually puzzled me about the public politics of COVID in the UK is how ‘the Academic Left’, not to mention the Liberal Democrat party, has acquiesced through this silence in the sinister erosion of civil liberties. 

Now, my colleague Dragos Simandan of Brock University in Canada, and his co-authors Claus Rinner and Valentina Capurri, have written a full-length call to arms to critical geographers and social scientists.  Their call is to “take a stronger, more explicit, and more intellectually rigorous anti-authoritarian stance against the problematic public response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”  Critical social scientists living in Scotland should take particular note!

Simandan’s paper will be published later this year in the open access journal ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies.  [Note added by Mike Hulme 9 May 2022: this manuscript was subsequently ‘withdrawn’ by the journal ACME on spurious grounds of being “too long”. I suspect the real reasons for this subsequent rejection of Simandan’s paper were more sinister”]. They argue that “one of the most urgent preoccupations for critical geographers should be unmasking and opposing the rise of authoritarianism and the violation of basic human rights occasioned by the governments’ response to COVID-19”.

Simandan and colleagues go on to say that “far too small portion of [the social science literature on the pandemic] focuses on the primary issue of concern to us: the prospect of a permanent “state of emergency” or new authoritarian paradigm of biosecurity, and the failure of the Academic Left to confront it in a systematic, principled manner”.

And as King’s College London scholar, Carlo Caduff, has pointed out: “Ironically, these extremely restrictive lockdowns were sometimes demanded by people eager to criticize the authoritarianism of the Chinese state.  Across the world, the pandemic unleashed authoritarian longings in democratic societies, allowing governments to seize the opportunity, create states of exception and push political agendas.  Commentators have presented the pandemic as a chance for the West to learn authoritarianism from the East.  This pandemic risks teaching people to love power and [to] call for its meticulous application”.

Where do these instincts for centralized anti-democratic control come from?

A new paper in the journal Humanities and Social Science Communications, ‘The COVID-19 wicked problem in public health ethics: conflicting evidence, or incommensurable values?’ by Federica Angeli, Silvia Camporesi and Giorgia Dal Fabbro, sheds some light.  This incisive study seeks to make sense of the seeming scientific disagreement around COVID-19 public health policies, encapsulated in the apparent stand-off between the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) and the John Snow Memorandum (JSM), two scientific petitions about COVID policies that appeared in October 2020.

What Angeli and colleagues clearly show is that public health policies—particularly those aimed at the containment of a highly infectious disease such as COVID-19—revolve around “a compass of moral values” — equality, liberty and utilitarianism — “which are often implicitly given different weights by both policymakers and scientific advisors.  Both the understanding of these values, and the normative weighing of the values, will always necessarily be context dependent, and dynamic.” 

The disagreement between the GBD and the JSM is not about scientific facts per se, but about how such facts become interpreted through different ethical lenses.  The GBD emphasises equality and liberty; the JSM utilitarianism.

What is needed is not for politicians to ‘follow the science’ or to ‘listen to the scientists’.  No.  It is the role of politicians to be explicit about the moral and ethical choices that lie behind different policy interventions.  And then to subject these options to the widest possible public debate and scrutiny, not least through the democratic institutions of the nation.

Which brings us back to Parliament and to Scotland.

COVID-19 will not be the last public policy issue that governments will declare to be ‘an emergency’.  We already see this with climate change.  And it will not be the last time that the state, in the name of managing ‘an emergency’ on behalf of the People, restricts human freedoms and civil liberties, and imposes unbearable fiscal burdens on the poor. 

Once leopards or sharks get a taste for human blood, they want more.  Once the state believes it can govern by decree — without the scrutiny of Parliament and therefore without the consent of the People – it will never freely relinquish its position.  This way lies the death of democracy. 

This is the danger confronting Scotland right now.

Mike Hulme, 20 August 2021, Cambridge