“This is what a police state is like. It’s a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.”
What grotesque infringement of our liberties prompted this portentous assessment from the former senior judge, Lord Sumption?
It was, it turns out, a combination of absurd actions from Derbyshire Police, pouring black dye into a disused quarry to stop people swimming in it, and using drones to follow innocent dogwalkers around the Peak District, shaming them for not following The Regulations on exercise. That’s not all, elsewhere we hear tales of wrongheaded Bobbies clamping down on shoppers buying non-essential Easter Eggs. Then there was South Wales Police chastising Labour MP Stephen Kinnock for visiting his Dad – at a very safe distance – to wish him a happy 78th birthday.
Certainly we are living in strange, disturbing times. Our right to travel, congregate and even shop normally are all being curtailed in the name of public health. But how worried should we be by this outbreak of nincompoopery on the part of certain police forces?
Take the black dye case that prompted so much sound and fury. The site in question, though described in some quarters as some kind of fenland beauty spot, is actually more akin to a toxic waste dump – and the police first gave it the dye treatment back in 2013. And, to invert a cliche, the Smarties Stasi clamping down on festive chocolate would be sinister if it wasn’t so manifestly absurd.
Where there is over-zealousness on the part of the police it seems to be just that – overzealousness, not a systematic attempt to arbitrarily impose the will of the state on the people. As the senior police officer Neil Basu wrote earlier this week, the surreal time we live in requires a “period of readjustment”, not just for those of us confined to our homes, but for those trying to maintain some semblance of order too.
Nor, I suspect, would people who live in actual police states – China, say – regard the odd bit of quizzing about why someone is out of the house as a particularly draconian imposition. It’s worth remembering too that our version of lockdown is, for now, less severe than in countries such as Italy, Spain and France, And when the Scottish government tried to take the genuinely worrying step of suspending trial by jury earlier this week, it was a combination of lawyers, the SNP’s own MPs and Cabinet ministers that led the backlash. That senior politicians were willing to contemplate such a step was a reminder that even if we don’t resort to hyperbole about ‘police states’, a default setting of wariness beats one of complacency.
Still, the fact that Brits, spurred on by our often raucous media, can get so worked up about fairly inconsequential incidents is a cheering reminder that we really do value our freedoms, even if most of us have the good sense to give them up temporarily to avert a fate worse than unfreedom – if not for ourselves, then for our elderly or unwell neighbours.
The bigger question is how long this strange version of British society can hold. For now, there seems to be extraordinary support for the Government’s actions – as Matt Singh noted earlier this week, this is one of those ‘rally round the flag’ moments. Whether that will continue more than a few more weeks depends on a combination of the severe economic damage the lockdown is doing, and whether people simply get so frustrated and bored of being at home that they start ignoring the Government’s strictures.
Of course, I could be wrong about this being the slide towards some kind of totalitarian dystopia where we’re never allowed out of the house without a permit. Though if that is the case, I dare say people will have better things to worry about than whether some journalist or other thought this had made an errant prediction.
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