‘They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ – Benjamin Franklin
In late July Trump posed a question to his haggle of Twitter followers. He asked if the election could be delayed, citing concerns linked to Coronavirus. Naturally, this tweet was met with furore and anger from the media and most reasonable people – even many of ‘The Donald’s’ biggest fans. The condemnations which followed the tweet were well justified, regular elections are a mainstay of any democracy, key to maintaining liberty, public trust and integrity, to suggest delaying an election is to suggest delaying a most fundamental right of a democratic, free society. Given the anger at Donald back in July, it is quite surprising and perturbing to read that the SNP are in the process of passing a bill through the Scottish parliament that will give them the power to delay next year’s Scottish elections if they deem it ‘unsafe’ to hold them. A law essentially giving Nicola Sturgeon the power to decide if and when the people should be allowed to exercise their democratic right. Given Donald’s tweet was described as ‘a chilling attack on the democratic process,’ what are we to make of this development in Scotland? I have hardly heard a peep from the media about it.
I appreciate the circumstances are vastly different- an election for the president of the free world versus one for a devolved regional government. Yet the principle in both cases is the same. A government only holds power based upon the consent of the people it represents. The people give this consent through fixed-term elections, when the term ends the government has to fight once more for the permission of the people to continue. Perhaps you are thinking it’s not a big deal, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Firstly considering the USA managed to pull off an election in a country of over 300 million (even if a bit messy) I think with a bit of creativity Scotland should be able to manage just fine. Secondly, it’s not just about this election or this moment in history, even if they decide not to delay the election. The point is that they are creating a precedent for any successor government. That they have the power to delay an election, to delay liberty and to breach the social contract fundamental to the health of any democracy if they deem it ‘unsafe.’
I do not mean to attack the Scottish government per-se. I am simply trying to highlight the sacrifices of our freedoms that have been made at the altar of safety since the pandemic began. There is a famous quote ‘give me liberty or give me death.’ Not to be controversial but it appears this trope has been abandoned as we have been willing to surrender any liberty necessary to avoid any minuscule possibility of death. When I say minuscule I don’t mean to downplay the tragic deaths of many but for the majority of the population, the chances of death from Covid 19 infection are no higher than the chances of dying in a road accident.
At the start of November, just a few days before we as a nation took a moment to reflect on the sacrifices of the men who gave their lives on the battlefields of Europe to guarantee the freedom and liberty of this country there was a protest in London. It was a protest which happens annually to speak out against authoritarianism. 200 people were arrested. They weren’t arrested for being violent or aggressive or anything of the sort; they were arrested for attending an entirely peaceful protest. The right of any free person?
I’m not saying they should have protested, I’m not saying that I or you have to agree with their aims. However in a democracy, certain rights are inalienable and fundamental, no government or police force should be able to infringe upon them. These rights include the freedom of assembly and protest, the freedom to worship, freedom of speech and more. Each of these rights has been attacked or abolished since the pandemic’s outset. We have all remained silent in the face of it, we should be more concerned.
The virus poses a threat and we grieve those who have died too soon. We should exercise caution and be respectful of people’s safety. This does not mean that we should be threatened with arrest if we go to church or to the mosque, if we drive 10 miles down the road to see a relative or if we have the potential to be infectious. Imagine the police having power so broad that they can arrest you if you ‘have the potential to be infectious.’ This is not a safety measure it is a draconian attack on individual autonomy and liberty and should scare us.
What makes the whole saga worse is that even if the trade-off of liberty for safety was worth it which I do not believe for a second, there is no consensus that lockdowns work. Indeed many in the scientific community seem to think that stripping people of civil liberties does more harm than good. The impact of the measures on loneliness, undetected diseases, rising levels of domestic abuse and mental health will probably be impossible to ever truly quantify however many experts think that they by far offset anything achieved by limiting our freedoms. I would encourage you to read the Barrington Declaration, it is quite brief and summarises well this viewpoint.
Let me finish with this. I haven’t written this to tell you to burn your masks, meet up with everyone you know and throw caution to the wind. No doubt many of the habits we’ve adopted have helped. I say that the government should not have the right to limit basic freedoms and we need to speak up to ensure that the implication of the last few months is not to set a precedent for the stripping of civil liberties in the future. What happens next time there is a bad flu season? Surely locking the country down for a couple of months every winter would save lives. Yes the government should encourage and incentivise us to exercise every measure of safety- they should not be able to arrest us if we pop out for milk and forget our mask.
James is a final year student at University College London studying Politics, Sociology and Eastern European Studies, interested in a range of social and political issues.