Sleep-walking into totalitarianism

Just over a year ago on this blog I warned of the dangerous consequences for democracy of declaring “emergencies”. “Taking decisive action against ‘the enemy’”, I said then, “whether [it be] Coronavirus or climate change, comes at a cost. And that cost is reduced civil liberties and restricted democratic accountability”. At the time, I used the case of the state’s appropriation of unprecedented centralised powers in the name of ‘stopping a pandemic’ to warn climate campaigners of the dangers of promiscuously calling for “climate emergencies” to be declared, everywhere from parish councils and universities to nation states and the United Nations.

Now, thirteen months later, the situation becomes still more worrying.

In the first stages of seeking to control the movement and entitlements of the British population through “vaccine passports” [NB. I am firmly in favour of vaccine rollouts], we now see just how far the State can extend and perpetuate its powers under “emergency” conditions. Emergency conditions are generally attractive to State executives. As my blog from March 2020 stated, “…Civil liberties are suspended; citizens are placed in quarantine and their movements are surveilled by the state through police or through new face recognition or drone technologies; ballot boxes are closed and elections abandoned; Parliamentary scrutiny of the executive is a luxury that can be no longer afforded.”

As I have been constantly saying, where is the political opposition to these totalitarian moves being made by a Conservative government? Only far too late in the day has (the forgotten) Ed Davey of the Liberal Democrats peeped his head over the parapet to oppose government by decree. And Keir Starmer continues to be stymied by his pathetic and indecisive attempts to gain political capital by ‘blowing with the wind’, rather than for standing up for democratic liberties and for Parliamentary scrutiny.

Iain Martin, a Brexiteer and no political friend of mine, in an editorial for Reaction News on Good Friday, summed up the looming situation succinctly, “The danger in a democracy is that the popular will becomes a steamroller, crushing the liberties of minorities and providing cover for arbitrary government that can castigate the opposition as anti-public safety.”

Since his editorial is behind a paywall, I have reproduced it below …

Tyranny of the majority: Emperor Boris has got the authoritarian bug with vaccine passports
[Reaction News, 2 April 2021]

Boris Johnson is readying himself to make one of the most significant announcements of his premiership. Early next week he is due to either give the go ahead or halt the government’s development of a domestic vaccine passport. This is not about foreign travel. There is broad, but far from universal, acceptance that travel firms and foreign governments will stipulate some proof of vaccination status, or medical exemption, as a condition for travelling abroad. What the government has been working on behind the scenes goes well beyond that.

A working group, reporting to Michael Gove, overlord of the Cabinet Office, the nerve centre of Whitehall, has been examining the practicalities of domestic vaccine passports that could be required as proof to facilitate entry to the workplace, pub, cinema, gym, museum or any other space where – the horror – other human beings gather, or used to before Covid. Next week, the Prime Minister will either extend that group’s remit so that it can continue work on domestic vaccine passports until June, or he will say it is un-British and restrict the concept to foreign travel.

Officially, no decision has been made, but the Whitehall mood music suggests that Johnson wants it bad. He is scarred by his failure to move quickly in the early months of the crisis, buoyed by the success of the vaccination effort in Britain and determined to make sure the government takes advantage of whizz-bang technology to aid the reopening of society.

On that basis, the development of such vaccine status certificates, domestic passports or nascent digital identity cards, looks destined to get the go ahead, although it will be caveated with lists of exclusions and promises of protections to guard against tyrannical behaviour by this or a future government. Briefings suggest that we won’t need our digital vaccine cards to get into a supermarket to buy food, which is nice of the government.

Unfortunately, such guarantees are not worth the paper they are not written on, as the old saying goes. The last year has demonstrated how once an emergency law exists it can easily be dialled up at a few hours notice. All you need is the podium, or bully pulpit, at 10 Downing Street; use of statutory instruments and executive orders; a series of charts; a worried scientist or two; the results of some taxpayer-funded polling showing how terrified people are after watching all those taxpayer-funded adverts; and under the cover of the latest phase of the emergency the leader turns up the dial.

It is not difficult to imagine what could happen in a future phase of the crisis, with a new variant or some other panic about the effectiveness of a particular vaccine in the face of fresh disaster, or a new disease, and the government issuing orders that only certain categories of persons are permitted to leave the house, on the grounds of public safety. Imagine this or a future administration sending colour-coded alerts to your app explaining your government-mandated status, and checks in the street or at entrances to public buildings, enforced through the system of fines put in place in the last year. Add an extra layer of digitisation and the fines could be automatic if your movements, recorded by your phone, are at odds with your status. Why not hook it up to digital banking too? The fines could be extracted automatically.

And if this can be done for one disease, why not add in other diseases, or our entire health history, plus taxation and criminal records? Imagine a one-stop shop app identity card and status-checker facilitating smoother government, identifying suspicious activity and strengthening public order. Who’s opposed to that? Are you? Why, what have you done wrong, citizen?

Stop, don’t panic, this is not what is envisaged, according to those in government. This is just a simple little vaccine status certificate to help give businesses confidence and slow the spread of Covid, in the name of public safety.

There are several ethical, practical and political problems with believing such assurances.

It misunderstands how digital innovation works when it intersects with a modern government hungry for power. The state is famously poor at digital innovation, but as Robert Colvile, writing in the Sunday Times, has demonstrated several times, the British state has the data, reams of it. When the database is robust it can quickly be used to roll out policy. It is on this basis that the vaccine rollout has worked so well – because of the simplicity of the GP system and record-keeping.

Once the vaccine status digital passport is up and running it will be possible – not easy, but the technology is improving all the time – to add extra data from databases deemed robust enough, building up layers of information year after year from the cradle to the grave.

On hand to help are the technology firms. During the crisis, the government has become very reliant on their advice. It is understandable, considering how ill-equipped the British state was for an emergency on the scale of Covid. In China, the state had systems of control via technology in place already. Britain had to improvise, making better use of technology and learning at speed.

In Whitehall, there was a scramble last Spring and there were positive outcomes. Firms such as Palantir, the US defence and data-mining firm, were able to show the Department of Health what it was missing in the oceans of data, finding patterns of behaviour and trends that improved care and sped up ambulance response times.

Now, a range of tech companies are on hand to advise the government on the possibilities for Covid passports utilising smartphone technology. The data can be anonymised to reassure the public,  ministers are told. This is the future, relax. It was always odd, you’ll hear it said, that Britain had no ID cards, so what better way to get groovily ahead of the global curve and illustrate that post-Brexit we’re a tech-friendly hive of innovation? Why not create a state of the art, domestic passport that allows government to deal with crises and spot patterns in our behaviour, anonymised, naturally? All aiding the state in making better policy to keep us all safe.

This is the climate in which Johnson will decide.

The government he runs might say that it is a nice government – with nice people in it – and that it has no intention of ever going further than Covid status on your phone, but if you believe that the state will stop at vaccination status I have a completed Garden Bridge across the Thames to sell you. 

In normal circumstances, parliament would be all over this threat, checking the executive and pointing out that we do not exist at the pleasure of the state, or as its creatures to be monitored and controlled.

But we don’t really have a parliament, thanks to the crisis. You will occasionally see footage of someone or other speaking to a virtually empty Commons chamber, but this is largely for show. We have a Zoom parliament. The Commons is a shell and scrutiny in the Lords has gone, to be replaced with two minute online homilies that make  discombobulated parliamentarians look like extras in a hostage video, which in a way they are.

The state – via Covid laws – has accrued enormous extra power and is reluctant to give it up.  

When every single line of the emergency laws should have been scrapped last month, instead they were extended for six months, because the opposition does not want to look as though it opposes anything that flies under the banner of public order.

What should have happened is this. The politicians we pay to represent us should have been vaccinated and returned to Westminster. Then the government should have brought back all the scrapped measures to the chamber and committee and sought parliamentary approval. Most of it would have passed, but in the act of seeking approval from MPs and Peers the government would have been forced to acknowledge that it is accountable to Parliament, that Parliament is not a mere irritant or something alien. Parliament is us, the expression of public will, consent, and democratic politics, one of the key institutions that is there as protection, or it should be, against arbitrary government and abuses of power.

Instead of this, we have a politics that is now almost comically obsessed with opinion polling. This government tracks public opinion relentlessly, as though in perpetual campaign mode, to inform its decision-making on restrictions, come up with messages for public information campaigns and establish what we’ll put up with. Overdone, this is unhealthy.

Some of my favourite people are opinion pollsters, but the best of them will tell you that polls cannot give you foresight or tell you what is right or what to do. If there had been round the clock polling in 1938 the public would have been in favour of appeasing the fascist dictators in perpetuity and very much against taking Churchill seriously. Two years later it looked quite different. All manner of terrible ideas have been popular at one time or another. And in this crisis, it has become clear that the majority of voters have, in a crisis, high susceptibility to authoritarian ideas.

Right now, according to opinion polls, the public likes or backs the strictest Covid restrictions. What does that mean beyond a simple yes/no responding to a pollster? It makes the complex sound beguilingly simple. Remember, the rules also include guidance to lock up (really, the guidance insists they’re not allowed outside) care home residents. Elderly campaigners are finally getting a hearing for their complaints about this madness, saying rightly that it is discriminatory.

Similarly, large majorities also say for now they are in favour of vaccine passports for entry to the pub. But most people rarely go to the pub. It’s a minority sport. So the majority who tell a pollster they are in favour are being careless with other people’s liberties. There may also be an element of resentment at others going around enjoying themselves.

In this way, if it is allowed to happen, the domestic passport could turn into the perfect case study of a well-established philosophical concept, that is the threat of the “tyranny of the majority”, as defined by J.S. Mill, but developed before that in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Hence the separation of powers and state rights in the US.

The danger in a democracy is that the popular will becomes a steamroller, crushing the liberties of minorities and providing cover for arbitrary government that can castigate the opposition as anti-public safety.

My fellow Brexiteers who ill-advisedly  used that ghastly phrase – “the will of the People” – to make their case may now find themselves on the wrong side of it when it comes to vaccine passports turning into ID cards. The “will of the People” implies a blunt instrument, the People as one, when democracy and the functioning of a free society are far more complex than that. Liberty relies on an overlapping web of robust institutions and social conventions, underpinned by regular elections.

Through Brexit, and then Covid polling, has Boris caught the “will of the People” bug on the convenient basis that the People need a wise leader who understands them, to interpret their will and guide their affairs? It looks like it.

In front of a parliamentary committee recently he mused on the wisdom of crowds, and the good sense there is in public opinion. He is currently ahead in the polls and to his amusement has forged a remarkable connection with voters outside the metropolitan media bubble that hates him.

Johnson’s critics miscast him as a libertarian, because he is a socially liberal figure with a personal motto that rests on doing as he pleases, unimpeded by what he sees as the petty morals of bossy puritans. It’s more than that though, and the root of it again lies in Rome and his obsession with the ancients.

As his biographer Andrew Gimson first divined, Boris is best understood as a pre-Christian figure. His view is that there was a perfectly good civilisation running in Rome until the Christians came along and ruined it with their rules and (then) new age ideas of love, forgiveness and fidelity.

He is particularly attracted to the Roman conception of leadership – including, the need for strength, for fun and frolics to keep the populace happy, and for big infrastructure as a manifestation of power and improvement. 

So, all hail Emperor Boris. Or don’t.

There is a lot of good this government can do, if it gets down to work levelling up the poorer parts of the country. And building a new China-sceptic foreign policy in alliance with other democracies such as the US and Japan. And saving the Union. The government has more than enough to do. ID cards and vaccine passports should go onto the funeral pyre.

If he persists, one can only hope that when the state allows parliament to return (think about what that need for permission implies) then parliamentarians will halt domestic vaccine passports.

There are signs of parliament stirring this Easter weekend, with rebel Tory MPs allying with the Labour left. The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer suggests he might – might – vote against, finally showing some opposition and creating the conditions for MPs to defeat the government on this. In the name of liberty, it cannot come soon enough.
Iain Martin
Reaction Editor
and publisher