Sir Robert Menzies was a liberal conservative, an individualist and a believer in the middle-class virtues of ambition, family loyalty and self-reliance. In all of these respects he was a man of his time, very much in the same mould as contemporary European statesmen such as Harold Macmillan in Britain and Konrad Adenauer in Germany.
I was born the year before Menzies began his second premiership. In my adult lifetime, there have been radical changes in our world, which have undermined many of the values that Menzies and his contemporaries held dear. The West’s share of the world’s resources and output, which Menzies took as a given, has been much reduced. Today, Western economies are being challenged by low-wage economies and the shortening of their technological lead. We face problems of faltering growth, relative economic decline, redundant skills and capricious patterns of inequality. At the same time, there has been a dramatic rise in public demands on the state: as the provider of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of economic security and as a regulator of an ever-widening range of human activities. When we transfer responsibility for our wellbeing from ourselves to the state, we invite a much more authoritarian style of government. In many ways the intellectual goalposts have shifted. It is more difficult to be a liberal conservative and an individualist in those conditions than it was in Menzies’s day.
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Perhaps the most striking manifestation of these changes has been the response of most states to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am not going embark on a discussion of the merits of lockdowns, although I am on record as doubting their effectiveness and objecting strongly to their collateral consequences. I am concerned here with a different question, namely what this episode in our history tells us about current attitudes to the state and to personal liberty. On that larger canvas, lockdowns are only the latest and most spectacular illustration of a wider tendency in our societies.
At the root of the political problems generated by the pandemic was the public’s attitude to the state and to risk. People have a remarkable degree of confidence in the capacity of the state to contain risk and ward off misfortune. An earlier generation regarded natural catastrophes as only marginally amenable to state action. The Spanish flu pandemic from 1918 to 1921 is the event most closely comparable to the Covid pandemic. Estimates of global mortality range from 20 million to 100 million people at a time when the world’s population was about a sixth of what it is now. Australia was largely protected from Spanish flu by distance and quarantine. In Europe, where Spanish flu took a much heavier toll, governments took no special steps to curtail its transmission, apart from isolating the infected and the sick, which had been the classic response to epidemics from time immemorial. No one criticised them for this. The related pathogens behind the Asiatic flu pandemic of 1957 and Hong Kong flu in 1968 had an infection rate roughly comparable to Covid, and a mortality rate which was slightly lower. No special steps were taken to control transmission. Indeed, in the US and UK a deliberate decision was made not to take such steps because of the disruption they would have caused to the life of the nation. No one criticised this approach.
Covid is a more infectious pathogen than Spanish flu, but it is significantly less mortal. It is also easier to deal with because it mainly affects those over sixty-five or suffering from one of a number of identifiable pre-existing clinical conditions, generally affecting the respiratory system. A high proportion of people in those vulnerable categories are economically inactive. They can be encouraged to shield themselves. Governments might have worked with the natural instincts of humans for self-preservation, allowing less vulnerable categories to get on with their lives and engage in the productive activities on which we all ultimately depend. By comparison, Spanish flu was more difficult to deal with, because its most devastating impact was on healthy people aged under fifty.
Yet in 2020, Britain, in common with Australia and almost all Western countries, ordered an indiscriminate lockdown of the whole population, healthy or sick, old or young, something which had never been done before in response to any disease anywhere. These measures enjoyed substantial public support. In Melbourne, lockdown was enforced with a brutality unequalled in liberal countries, but a Lowy Institute poll conducted in 2021 found that 84 per cent of Australians thought that their governments had handled it very well or fairly well. Australians thought even better of New Zealand’s approach, with 91 per cent in favour.
It is clear that in the intervening century between the Spanish flu and Covid, something radically changed in our collective outlook. Two things in particular have changed. One is that we now expect more of the state, and are less inclined to accept that there are limits to what it can or should do. The other is that we are no longer willing to accept risks that have always been inherent in life itself.
Human beings have lived with epidemic disease from the beginning of time. Covid is a relatively serious epidemic, but historically it is well within the range of health risks which are inseparable from ordinary existence, risks which human beings have always had to live with. In Europe, bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera and tuberculosis were all worse in their time. Worldwide, the list of comparable or worse epidemics is substantially longer, even if they did not happen to strike Europe or North America. Covid is certainly within the broad range of diseases with which we must expect to live in future. The change is in ourselves, not in the nature or scale of the risks we face.
Epidemic disease is a particularly clear example of the kind of risks from which we crave the protection of the state, although they are inherent in life itself. But there are many others: financial loss, economic insecurity, crime, sexual violence and abuse, sickness, accidental injury. The quest for state protection against ever wider categories of risk is not irrational. It is in some ways a natural response to the remarkable increase in the technical competence of mankind since the middle of the nineteenth century, which has considerably increased the range of things that the state can do. As a result, we have inordinately high expectations of the state. For all perils, there must be a governmental solution. If there is none, that implies a lack of governmental competence.
There are few things as routine as death. “In the midst of life, we are in death,” says the Book of Common Prayer. Yet the technical possibilities of modern, publicly financed medicine have accustomed us to the idea that except in extreme old age, any death from disease is premature, and that all premature death is avoidable. Starting as a natural event, death has become, in the eyes of our contemporaries, a symptom of societal failure. Hence the demands for intervention by the state.
In modern conditions, risk aversion, and the fear that goes with it, are a standing invitation to authoritarian government. If we hold governments responsible for everything that goes wrong, they will take away our autonomy so that nothing can go wrong. If we demand state protection from risks which are inherent in life itself, these measures will necessarily involve the suppression of some part of life itself. The quest for security at the price of coercive state intervention is a feature of democratic politics which was pointed out in the 1830s by Alexis de Toqueville in his remarkable study of American democracy, a book whose uncanny relevance to modern dilemmas still takes one by surprise even after nearly two centuries. His description of the process cannot be bettered. The protecting power of the state, he wrote:
extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered. But it is softened, bent, and guided. Men are seldom forced to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes. It stupefies a people until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
By definition, legal regulation is designed to limit risk by limiting freedom. Governments do this to protect themselves from criticism. During the pandemic, regulations addressed the risk of infection by Covid, because governments identified that as the thing that they were most likely to be criticised for. Governments were willing to accept considerable collateral damage to mental health resulting from the lockdown, and large increases in deaths from cancer, ischaemic heart disease and dementia. Why? Because they knew that they were less likely to be criticised for those. They would not show up in television screens, with pictures of long lines of ambulances waiting outside hospitals. They would not appear in the daily casualty lists. But they are just as real.
A good deal of historical experience suggests that people who are sufficiently frightened will submit to an authoritarian regime which offers them security against some real or imagined threat. Historically, the threat has usually been war. In the two world wars of the twentieth century Britain transformed itself into a temporary despotism, with substantial public support. Wars, however, are rare. The countries of the West have not faced an existential threat from external enemies since 1940. Today, the real threat to democracy’s survival is not major disasters like war. It is comparatively minor perils which in the nature of things occur more frequently. The more routine the perils from which we demand protection, the more frequently will those demands arise. If we confer despotic powers on government to deal with perils which are an ordinary feature of human existence, we will end up doing it most or all of the time. It is because the perils against which we now demand protection from the state are so much more numerous and routine than they were, that they are likely to lead to a more fundamental and durable change in our attitudes to the state. This is a more serious problem for the future of democracy than war.
In the first of my 2019 Reith Lectures, I drew attention to the implications of public aversion to risk for our relationship with the state. I referred to what I have called, then and since, the Hobbesian bargain. The seventeenth-century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that human beings surrendered their liberty completely, unconditionally and irrevocably to an absolute ruler in return for security. Hobbes was an apologist for absolute government. In his model of society, the state could do absolutely anything for the purpose of reducing the risks that threaten our wellbeing, other than deliberately kill us. Hobbes’s state was an unpleasant thing, but he had, I think, grasped a profound truth. Most despotisms come into being not because a despot has seized power, but because people willingly surrender their freedoms in return for security. Our culture has always rejected Hobbes’s model of society. Intellectually, it still does. But in recent years it has increasingly tended to act on it. The response to Covid took that tendency a long way further. I could not have imagined in 2019 that my concerns would be so dramatically vindicated so quickly.
Until March 2020, it was unthinkable that liberal democracies should confine healthy people in their homes indefinitely, with limited exceptions at the discretion of government ministers. It was unthinkable that a whole population should be subject to criminal penalties for associating with other human beings, and answerable to the police for all the ordinary activities of daily life. When in early February 2020, the European Centre for Disease Control published the pandemic plans of all twenty-eight then members of the EU, including the UK, not one of these plans envisaged a general lockdown. Not one. The two principal plans were those prepared by the UK Department of Health and the Robert Koch Institute, the official epidemiological institute of Germany. They came to remarkably similar conclusions. The great object should be to enable ordinary life to continue as far as possible. The two main lessons were, first, to avoid indiscriminate measures and concentrate state interventions on the vulnerable categories; and, second, to treat people as grown-ups, go with the grain of human nature and avoid coercion. The published minutes of the committee of scientists advising the UK government show that their advice was on the same lines right up to the announcement of the first lockdown.
In the UK, the man mainly responsible for persuading the government to impose a lockdown was Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiological modeller based at Imperial College London. His work was influential in both the UK and elsewhere. In a press interview in February 2021, Ferguson explained what changed—it was the lockdown in China. “It’s a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought … And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.”
It is worth pausing to reflect on what this means. It means that because a lockdown of the entire population appeared to work in a country which was notoriously indifferent to individual rights and traditionally treats human beings as mere instruments of state policy, they could “get away with” doing the same thing here. Entirely absent from Professor Ferguson’s analysis was any conception of the principled reasons why it had hitherto been unthinkable for Western countries to do such a thing. It was unthinkable because it was based on a conception of the state’s relationship with its citizens which was morally repellent even if it worked.
It is not simply the assault on the concept of liberty that matters. It is the particular liberty which has been most obviously discarded, namely the liberty to associate with other human beings. Association with other human beings is not just an optional extra. It is not just a leisure option. It is fundamental to our humanity. Our emotional relationships, our mental wellbeing, our economic fortunes, our entire social existence is built on the ability of people to come together. This is why I regard lockdowns as a sustained attack on our humanity.
Historically, the response to an epidemic like this would have been a matter for individuals to make their own risk assessments, in the light of their own vulnerability and those of the people around them. This was the policy pursued in Sweden, which avoided coercion. Sweden had a death toll broadly in line with the European average and considerably better than the UK’s. The substitution of a governmental decision applicable to the whole population irrespective of their individual situation, is an extraordinary development in the history of our society and of other Western countries that have done the same thing.
The way that this one-size-fits-all approach has been justified adds to its totalitarian flavour. One argument which we heard, at least in the UK, was that uniform rules applied to people with different levels of vulnerability are necessary for the sake of social solidarity. There are two kinds of solidarity. One is the solidarity of mutual support. But this was a different kind of solidarity. It was the solidarity of intolerant conformism. It is irrational to treat everyone the same when the impact of the problem upon them is very different. The other argument that we heard was that it would be too difficult to enforce rules that differentiated between different people according to their degrees of vulnerability. In other words, the rules were couched in indiscriminate terms to make life easier for the police. When convenience of social control becomes itself an object of public policy, we are adopting part of the mentality of totalitarianism.
All of this marks a radical change in the relationship between the citizen and the state. The change is summed up in the first question that was asked of the UK Prime Minister when Number 10 press conferences were opened up to the public. “Is it OK for me to hug my grand-daughter?” Something odd has happened to a society if people feel that they need to ask the Prime Minister if it is OK to hug their grand-daughter.
I would sum up the change in this way. What was previously a right inherent in a free people, has come to depend on government licence. We have come to regard the right to live normal lives as a gift of the state. It is an approach which treats all individuals as instruments of collective policy.
All of this was made possible by fear. Throughout history fear has been the principal instrument of the authoritarian state. Fear and insecurity were the basis on which Hobbes justified the absolute state. That is what we have been witnessing in the last two years. A senior figure in the UK government told me during the early stages of the pandemic that in his view the liberal state was an unsuitable set-up for a situation like this. What was needed, he said, was something more “Napoleonic”. That says it all. At least as serious as the implications for our relations with the state are the implications for our relations with each other. The use of political power as an instrument of mass coercion, fuelled by public fear, is corrosive. It is corrosive even, perhaps especially, when it enjoys majority support. For it tends to be accompanied, as it has been in Britain, by manipulative government propaganda and vociferous intolerance of the minority who disagree. Authoritarian governments fracture the societies in which they operate. The pandemic generated distrust, resentment and mutual hostility among citizens in most countries where lockdowns were imposed.
It is widely assumed that this is a phase which will pass when Covid disappears (if it ever does). I am afraid that this is an illusion. We have turned a corner, and it will not be easy to go back. I say that for several reasons.
The first and most obvious is that governments rarely relinquish powers that they have once acquired. In Britain, wartime controls were kept in being for years after the end of the Second World War. Food rationing was kept in place in the name of social solidarity until 1952, long after it had disappeared in Germany and in the European countries which Germany overran. Regulations requiring people to carry identity cards, which had been introduced in 1940 to control spies and fifth-columnists, remained in force for the convenience of the police until the mid-1950s. This was the social-solidarity argument in action.
My second reason is that I see no reason why politicians should want or need to respect basic liberal values if the public is happy with a more authoritarian style of government. There will be other pandemics, which will provoke the same public reaction. But public support for Napoleonic government is not simply a response to epidemic disease. It is a response to a much more general feeling of insecurity, combined with a profound faith in the ability of government to solve any problem with sufficient talent and money. This is a symptom of a much more general appetite for authoritarian government, as the price for greater security.
It is accentuated by a growing feeling that strong governments are efficient and get things done while deliberative assemblies such as parliament are just a waste of time and a source of inefficiency. Strongmen get things done. They do not waste time in argument or debate. Something of the flavour of this mentality can be seen in Australia in the decision of the then Prime Minister to assume the powers of five different ministries in addition to those of his own office. He must have believed that a single all-powerful figure, a Napoleon, was needed. The same thinking must have been at least in some degree responsible for the suspension of parliament in Victoria. Discussion and debate were thought to get in the way of the effective exercise of power.
Historical experience should warn us that this veneration of the strongman is usually wrong. Autocratic government is usually bad government. There is a reason for this. The concentration of power in a small number of hands and the absence of wider deliberation and scrutiny enable governments to make major decisions without proper forethought, planning or research. In the government’s own ranks, it promotes loyalty at the expense of wisdom, flattery at the expense of objective advice. The want of criticism encourages self-confidence, and self-confidence banishes moderation and restraint.
You might say: Well, if the public is happy, isn’t that democracy in action? I answer that that is how democracies destroy themselves. Democracies are systems of collective self-government. It is of course possible for democracies to confer considerable coercive power on the state without losing their democratic character. But there is a point beyond which the systematic application of mass-coercion is no longer consistent with any notion of collective self-government. The fact that it is hard to define where that point lies, does not mean that there isn’t one. The qualified house imprisonment of the entire population passed that point by a large margin. A degree of respect for individual autonomy seems to me to be a necessary feature of anything which deserves to be called a democracy.
My final reason for believing that we have turned a corner on liberal democracy is perhaps the most fundamental. Aristotle regarded democracy as an inherently unstable form of government, because it was too easily transformed into despotism by the natural tendency of people to fall for an appealing tyrant. I think Aristotle was right. It is the reason why some form of authoritarian government has always been the default position of mankind. Nevertheless, most Western democracies have resisted this tendency, and avoided the disintegration which Aristotle regarded as their natural end. What has enabled them to do this is a shared political culture.
Governments have immense powers, not just in the field of public health but generally. These powers have existed for many years. Their existence has been tolerable in a liberal democracy only because of a culture of restraint, a sense of proportion and a respect for our humanity, which made it unthinkable that they should be used in a despotic manner. It has only ever been culture and convention which prevented governments from adopting a totalitarian model. But culture and convention are fragile. They take years to form but can be destroyed very quickly. Once you discard them, there is no barrier left. The spell is broken. If something is unthinkable until someone in authority thinks of it, the psychological barriers which were once our only protection against despotism have vanished.
There is no inevitability about the future course of any historical trend. But the changes in our political culture seem to me to reflect a profound change in the public mood, which has been many years in the making and may be many years in the unmaking. We are entering a Hobbesian world, the enormity of which has not yet dawned on our people.
Lord Sumption is a British author, medieval historian and former senior judge who sat on the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom between 2012 and 2018. This is an address he gave to the Robert Menzies Institute in Melbourne in October