Two nasty ailments have gripped Britain in recent days. The first is Covid-19. The second is intolerance of dissent. The authoritarian instincts of the chattering classes have been on full display in this crisis. You can see it in their daily pleas for Boris Johnson to turn the UK into a police state. You can see it in their sneering at people who visit parks or take a walk on a beachfront. And you can see it most disturbingly in their implacable rage against anyone who deviates from the Covid-19 script and asks if shutting down society really is the right thing to do. Like medieval scolds, they brand such people dangerous, insane, a virus, accessories to manslaughter. ‘Shut them down!’, they cry, thinking they are signalling their concern for the public’s health when really they are advertising their profound contempt for freedom of thought and critical debate.
In an emergency, freedom of speech doesn’t stop being important. It becomes more important…
And it’s a liberty under threat. The speed and intensity with which questioning extreme responses to Covid-19 has become tantamount to a speechcrime is alarming. I had a taste of it this weekend, when I found myself in the eye of a storm over a Spectator piece I wrote questioning the wisdom of closing pubs. Peter Hitchens did too, after he wrote a Mail on Sunday piece questioning the Covid shutdown of society. Others who have wondered out loud if the freezing of social and economic life is the right response to this novel new virus have been hounded, shamed, reported to the Silicon Valley authorities. David Lammy calls us insane and dangerous and says our words should be unpublished. Unpersoning will be next. Questioning the lockdown will see you blacklisted from polite society.
How swiftly we become McCarthyites. How naturally intolerance comes to that section of society that thinks it knows best.