The commentator diagnoses why so-called conservatives are unable (or unwilling) to combat draconian rule in the age of the pandemic.
Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens during a warm-up question before the recording of BBC One’s political debate programme, Question Time, hosted from St Paul’s Cathedral in London for the first time in the programme’s history. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
After a decades-long career in journalism that has taken him around the globe and frequently provided him a front-row seat to historic events, Peter Hitchens is one of the most recognizable conservative commentators in the Western world. A columnist for The Mail on Sunday, his acerbic and contrarian opinions have been published in The Spectator, First Things, The American Conservative, and a panoply of other publications. These days, Hitchens seems to be everywhere, frequenting TV shows, podcasts, and talk radio to argue that the government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are dangerous to fundamental freedoms and devastating to economic and political stability.
“I have been dismayed, in all the Anglosphere countries, by the disregard, among governments, for liberty and the rule of law which upholds it,” Hitchens told me by email. “This has been shown not only by leaders and cabinets, but legislatures, which have not resisted or properly debated emergency measures, and by the courts, which have not questioned the executive. Liberty under the law exists in the hearts of men and women. If they do not uphold them at such moments, then nothing and nobody else will. We are as free as we want to be. It appears that our political, judicial and media elites no longer wish to be free. These reverses may well turn out to be permanent. The submission to claims (in my view bogus) of necessity is easy to make and—once accepted in general—hard to escape from.”
Indeed, it has been easy for leaders and media figures (who suffer no impact on their income) to sneer at those who protest constitutionally dubious lockdown orders and other draconian measures, but these dissenters are performing an essential democratic function: They are reminding the bureaucrats and the politicians who they are ultimately accountable to. Many politicians have shown impatience when confronted with questions and contempt for those who demand evidence for measures that are destroying their livelihoods, and the protestors—regardless of their occasionally embarrassing antics and conspiracy theories—remind them of the limits of their power just as they begin to wield it with abandon.
I asked Hitchens why many of the governments implementing draconian measures, in the U.K. and elsewhere, consider themselves to be conservative. “I do not think there have been any conservative parties in the Anglosphere states for some time, if ever there were such things,” he replied. “The defence of private wealth from taxation was never much of a basis for conservatism, and the Reagan-Thatcher era was one of liberalism, not conservatism. The remnants of conservatism were posturing at home on issues such as abortion and criminal justice (about which ‘conservative’ parties have actually done nothing for decades) and starting foolish wars abroad.”
“Meanwhile, the post-1968 Left has utterly reformed itself, ridding itself of its Bolshevik and Soviet baggage, concentrating on social, cultural and sexual battles,” Hitchens observed. “The supposed ‘Right’ has never understood the aims or nature of the new Left. Its own lack of ideas has made it ready (because it cannot see the danger) and willing (because it wants office at any cost) to accept the New Left’s ideas. It still does not understand what it has accepted, but when it finds itself implementing egalitarianism, multiculturalism, third-wave feminism and political utopianism, it does not seem to mind. The idea behind the unprecedented COVID measures is fundamentally utopian, a belief that all kinds of actions are justified to fulfill a beautiful idea. And lo, they have done this.”
One of the key reasons it has been so easy for politicians to implement these measures is that a fear-driven majority has, in many places, given them carte blanche to do so. In Canada’s most populous province of Ontario, for example—home to 14.57 million people—lockdown measures forcing hundreds of small businesses into bankruptcy consistently poll at high levels of support. Those asking questions are accused of being callous to the lives of the elderly and the vulnerable, and politicians are swift to capitalize on these sentiments and insist they have no other choice. Thus, stunning and previously unheard-of crackdowns are taking place, with governments dictating who people can host in their homes and sending police to private properties to ensure their rules are being followed.
“It has been clear for some time that people who are used to inherited freedom do not mind very much if it is taken away, provided a convincing pretext (terrorism or disease) can be found,” Hitchens told me. “I’m not sure all that many people like liberty all that much. As someone who often dissents, I fear for the future. Freedom of speech and thought can’t survive long in such an atmosphere. If our Cold War Soviet enemy hadn’t been such an obvious enemy of liberty, I doubt that the NATO governments would have made much effort to defend it. But they were trapped by their own rhetoric into not attacking it all that much. Governments in general dislike freedom.”
As for the justification given for draconian measures—that we face driving healthcare systems to the breaking point and a soaring death count without them—Hitchens is a skeptic. “I await actual testable causal evidence that this is so. I have yet to see any, though I see plenty of evidence that the measures have done grave irreparable damage, social, educational, economic, personal, cultural and political. Or, more briefly: I see plenty of broken eggs. But where is your omelette?” The response of many governments to the pandemic, Hitchens says, is wildly disproportionate. “You don’t burn down your house to get rid of a wasps’ nest.”
When I asked him what the next five years might look like, Hitchens was characteristically pessimistic. “I am not a prophet. The first year has been quite bad enough. I think the economic consequences of what we (or rather they) have done will greatly limit any chance of recovery to our former levels of freedom, prosperity and civilisation. Even if anyone tries. As long as the precautionary principle rules, all it will take is a new allegedly devastating virus and we will slide right back down the snake to another futile and disgusting bout of state-sponsored fear and house arrest.” With the previous precedent of lockdowns to “stop the spread” triggering new lockdowns stretching into 2021, it is difficult to disagree with him.
Indeed, most governments seemed to have placed all of their eggs in the vaccine basket and do not have answers to simple yet very essential questions. What happens when the relief money being fire-hosed about runs out? What if another coronavirus mutation renders the vaccine ineffective? What if there’s a third and fourth wave? At what point does the economic and psychological fallout of the lockdowns outweigh the alleged benefits? Can the authorities simply invent new powers if they claim the situation calls for it and the voting public tolerates it? We’ll all find out together, and I suspect we won’t like the answers when they come.
As usual, I hope Peter Hitchens’ gloomy prognostications are wrong. As usual, however, I suspect that he is not.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.