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Paul Vallely: Johnson gambles with others’ futures

25 February 2022

Ending restrictions won’t bring freedom for everyone, declares Paul Vallely

Boris Johnson speaks in the Commons on Wednesday, flanked by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid

Boris Johnson speaks in the Commons on Wednesday, flanked by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid

THE lifting of Covid restrictions in England and Scotland offers a revealing contrast. Boris Johnson flamboyantly swept aside all remaining restraints in England, while Nicola Sturgeon adopted a phased approach, strongly advising Scots to keep wearing masks in shops and on public transport.

In London, the Prime Minister declared that we must “learn to live with this virus . . . without restricting our freedoms”. Waiting for Covid to be totally controlled would mean “restricting the liberty of the British people for a long time to come”.

Liberty is a slippery concept, as Isaiah Berlin pointed out when he showed that it could be both a negative and a positive phenomenon. Berlin defined “negative liberty” as the absence of obstacles, barriers, constraints, or coercion by an external body such as a government. Positive liberty, he said, “derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master” and “an instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will”. It is not what we are free from, but what we are free to do. These two concepts of liberty are not merely distinct: they are incompatible.

When politicians speak of liberty, they are usually referring to the negative type, of which John Stuart Mill declared: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way.” This, he said, encourages spontaneity, originality, genius, mental energy, and moral courage, without which society would be crushed by the weight of “collective mediocrity”.

Negative liberty, then, is usually associated with individualism. Optimists such as Locke, Smith, and Mill approve of this, whereas pessimists such as Hobbes and his followers prefer greater control. We see these two antagonistic traditions at work now on Covid in cavalier England and cautious Scotland, which is keeping restrictions in place for another month, and intends to retain a robust testing system and continue self-isolation support payments.

They are observable, too, within the Johnson Cabinet. The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, this week clashed with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who denied Mr Javid the £6 billion he wanted to preserve testing for the over-50s to identify those who would benefit from antiviral drugs. Denying tests to more vulnerable sections of the population inevitably limits their freedom.

It is interesting to reflect on which of these approaches to liberty is more consonant with the values of the gospel. The idea that one person’s freedom restricts that of another person is self-evident; my freedom to kill you must obviously be constrained. If every person has unlimited freedom, no person is truly free. That is because freedom is not a singular virtue. To pursue human fulfilment involves other virtues, such as security, justice, and equality before the law.

Freedom, then, in a civilised world has to be limited. Mr Johnson’s insistence that “we don’t need laws to compel people to be considerate of others” makes no allowance for the selfishness of certain sectors of the population. His idea that we can rely on everyone to “exercise personal responsibility”, and stay at home if they develop Covid, is not just optimism. It demonstrates his characteristic instinct to gamble with other people’s futures. Perhaps I should move to Scotland.

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