“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The words of Lord Acton, a fierce opponent of state power, are sadly no less relevant today than they were at his time of writing.
Over the past 20 months, the authoritarian approach of Western leaders has been justified by our representatives as a necessary response to a global emergency. Whether that’s true or not is up for discussion, however, one thing remains clear: such attitudes have handed governments a level of power that, left unchecked, severely curtails individual rights.
This path is not unique to the UK, nor is it unique to Europe. We’re seeing a near global normalisation of state overreach. Lockdowns in many liberal democracies have been brought in suddenly and without thorough scrutiny.
In this country, at no point were other methods to address the pandemic tested. They were barely even suggested. And with little counter from the mainstream media, the UK and others have normalised shutting down the country for the purpose of virus control.
It was only a few months ago that Australia locked over 5 million people after identifying a single case. A severe overreaction which likely contributed to the dramatic fall in Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrisson’s approval ratings of the handling of the pandemic, which fell from 85 per cent at the start of the pandemic to 47 per cent in the latest poll in August.
A commonly overlooked consequence of these authoritarian practices is the precedence it sets for how governments can and should act when faced with novel challenges. It has been predicted that future pandemics will become more frequent, and perhaps more deadly. Are we going to react again by shutting entire populations in their homes?
Looking to the continent, the ease at which governments are bringing in authoritarian measures should be an international scandal. Take Austria, where a national lockdown has just been extended until at least December 11th. Or Germany, which has announced today a de facto lockdown for the unvaccinated, and is debating bringing in a policy of mandatory vaccinations.
This extreme way of thinking is a new virus spreading across the Western world. Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Australia have all seen similar policies introduced.
It is right that we encourage vaccine uptake but since when is it acceptable for governments in supposedly liberal democracies to impose such an ultimatum: to vaccinate or to be void from public life? Now, in Germany, you must either comply with the government’s wishes or be forced, by law, to stay at home. It is no exaggeration to label such a policy – one that strictly targets those with different social and political beliefs – ‘proto-fascist’.
While Sajid Javid has said mandatory vaccination is something that “we would never look at” in the UK, it would not be the first time in this pandemic that the government backtrack on a public promise as a result of ‘changing circumstances’. It’s hardly surprising, then, that distrust is growing.
The new lockdown restrictions in Austria have resulted in over 40,000 Austrians taking their disapproval to the streets. This comes as little shock. A democratic government must represent and reflect the views of society, not shape them to fit the easiest and most convenient solution.
If 13.6 per cent of people are refusing vaccination, which is the figure in the UK, our government must address why. Why does a significant part of the population still lack trust in the vaccine? Is this attitude shaped by a distrust in government and public institutions? This is the fundamental issue the government must tackle. Authoritarian policies will only deepen the distrust people have towards elected officials – in this way, Austria’s approach is an example of exactly what not to do.
Moreover, we must be free to question the logic of mandatory vaccination. It has been argued that everyone must be vaccinated to tackle the negative externalities caused by infections. However, unless we have been misled by government data, this should not be the case.
Vaccines offer up to 90 per cent protection from infection, and even higher rates of protection from severe cases and death. As more evidence of the benefits of vaccination come to light, uptake should continue to rise.
Omicron, the new South African variant, is now being used as justification for leaders to expand their authoritarian agendas. Many of us have warned that the government will continue to move the goalposts as they see fit; others have scoffed at such concerns. For now, it seems the pandemic is far from over. And neither is the accompanying authoritarianism.