Boris Johnson is not a libertarian

All too often in mainstream British political discourse surrounding government policy as regards the still-ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson as well as the broader Conservative Party are pursuing a “libertarian” approach to Covid-19 policy. This description is, of course, a fatuous reference to the fact that Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party have been deliberately trying to avoid an increase in regulations and restrictions as the Omicron variant of Covid-19 continues to spread through England, thus seemingly taking a laissez-faire attitude to the issue, and derives from Boris Johnson’s own apparent self-description as a “libertarian”. But what is the truth of this “libertarianism”?

I must admit that a few years ago, for some time, I had been unduly skeptical of Jeremy Corbyn on libertarian grounds, but his recent opposition to Covid passports and mandatory vaccines (for NHS workers, at least), in spite of other trends in the Labour Party and the “centre-left” has had me off guard, and gotten me curious. On December 14th 2021, Jeremy Corbyn along with several other left-wing Labour MPs, including Diane Abbott and Zarah Sultana, voted against a series of measures that including Covid passports and mandatory vaccines for NHS workers, joined by a 100-strong contingent of Conservative rebels who opposed the government on these same measures. At first I did not know Corbyn’s argument, and this made me want to hear it, but recently a Double Down News video featuring Corbyn has proven to be rather clarifying on the subject.

Corbyn’s argument is that instituting a policy of requiring Covid passports would lead to a situation in which there would be a massive databank of citizens that can be held by the state for its own purposes against their privacy and civil liberties, and his argument against requiring NHS workers to be vaccinated is that this would potentially mean losing vital staff at a time when the NHS needs all hands available to manage hospitalization of people infected with Covid-19. I must say, it’s hard to oppose this line of argument, and I find myself agreeing with it, in parts cautiously and in parts enthusiastically. And once we start from this argument, or rather the observations it speaks to, the narrative of Boris Johnson’s “libertarianism” unravels into abject falsity.

For all the predictable bromides concerning the tradition of “English liberty”, the British government has fared little better than the rest of the world in its march towards the enactment of a long-term state of exception. After sitting on its hands and waiting for Covid-19 to spread across the UK and kill hundreds of people, the government mandated a protracted lockdown over a months-long period before the summer season, the exact length depending on which part of the UK you lived in. In England, particularly, things had become so draconian that there were even reports that casual sex had been banned (outside your own home, of course). And then, in 2021, peaceful protests and vigils against police violence in the wake of the rape and murder of Sarah Everard were met with violent suppression by the police and an effort by the Conservative government to impose new restrictions against the right to protest, and thereby the basic rights to freedom of speech, expression, and assembly. So much for this “English liberty” we were all told about.

In this light, Boris Johnson can’t possibly be taken as a “libertarian” with any grain of seriousness. But then how do we make sense of his ostensibly laissez-faire approach to the pandemic as of late. Well there are a number of ways. I suspect one viable explanation is that he can’t possibly maintain a position in which to impose further restriction after he himself violated the very restrictions he imposed upon everyone else. But I have another theory. Remember that, as Covid-19 was spreading across Europe and the UK had its first confirmed cases, the government waited until the middle of March to enact any serious policies to combat, or more accurately control, the spread of Covid-19. It was in the vacuum of apparent inaction and mounting viral transmission that a repressive state of exception soon followed. My suspicion hence is that the government had deliberately arranged our extant circumstances so as to allow for the necessity of a state of exception, most likely as part of a strategy to bide time and preserve the order of uninterrupted exchange of capital and goods while the government cooked a set of restrictions to stall the virus and compensate the rich.

This understanding also applies to the proposal to require NHS workers to be vaccinated. In theory it should make sense, but in practice the logical outcome of this means that any NHS workers who, for whatever reason, have not been vaccinated will lose their jobs. The problem here is obvious: that potentially means less staff for the NHS, which means less people to perform the various functions of the NHS which it needs especially in order to manage the negative cascading effects of a pandemic. There is already a staff shortage in the NHS as it is, with thousands of workers absent because of Covid, and this has led to critical incidents in British hospitals, disruptions of vital medical functions including unloading ambulances, military personnel being deployed to plug the gaps, and a general demoralisation among remaining NHS staff. With this in mind, legally requiring NHS staff to be vaccinated in order to continue their duties could deepen the pressures facing the NHS by leading to further shortages, creating gaps that are then harder to fill, leading to a general crisis for the NHS. This, in my opinion, constitutes a direct attack on the NHS, one befitting a government that had already take many millions of pounds of money out of the NHS and continued a regime of privatisation that has been active since before Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. Incidentally, it should be stressed that privatisation has, in the years prior to the global pandemic, been pursued not only by the British government but also the government of Italy, thus eventually weakening the ability of public health services to effectively combat the pandemic.

Thus it is empirically clear what the Conservative government is doing. Far from pursuing a “libertarian” approach to the pandemic, the government is attempting to establish a biopolitically-controlled carceral state, whose order over the masses is based on a broad restriction of freedom that is itself sustained by a constant state of crisis management. This crisis management, of course, pertains to a continuous emergence, recession, and then resurgence of Covid-19, which, while obviously not created itself by the government, is facilitated by the government in that it conditions its ability to cyclically re-establish itself. There have been many voices in the political and scientific establishment

The UK is not the only country in the world where Covid-19 regulations, under the purview of certain authoritarian governments, have served as a pretext to expand the dictatorial powers of the state. In Greece, Covid-19 restrictions were invoked as a pretext for allowing the Greek police to violently suppress protests against the government and censure members of the Greek parliament. In Austria, there is already a raft of draconian restrictions being implemented, including vaccine mandate enforced by fines and police checks, and has enacted a lockdown and curfews specifically for unvaccinated citizens. In France, President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to curtail several freedoms for the 5 million French citizens who have not yet been vaccinated; although he doesn’t plan to vaccinate everyone by force, he does plan to ban unvaccinated citizens from going to restaurants, cafes, cinemas, theatres, and many other public venues. In the United States of America, President Joe Biden tried to implement a policy of mandatory vaccination for employees, but it was blocked by the Supreme Court. And this is to say nothing of the way China has handled the pandemic since it was still largely confined to Wuhan.

My point is that all over the world one of the main cascading effects of Covid-19 has been a raft of states of exception, countries ratcheting the expansion of authoritarian state power by using the continued presence and resurgence of Covid-19 to exercise greater authority over the citizens, and Jeremy Corbyn is right to talk about this happening, he is right to be concerned about how all of this is going to lead up to a future of police states down the line, and he is right about how none of this requries you to be an anti-vax nutjob who thinks that mass vaccination itself is just a control mechanism. If we are at all concerned about civil liberties, we would be fools to ignore Corbyn’s argument. And we should also recognize the Conservative government under Boris Johnson for what it is: an increasingly authoritarian state of exception, which should be dismantled like any other tyranny.

Now, since there’s rumours of Jeremy Corbyn starting a new Peace and Justice Party, even if it’s not going to happen, Corbyn’s talk about civil liberties honestly has me hoping that maybe his new party might be worth supporting. I mean, ultimately no party is going to deliver any country from capitalism in the long-term, and the track record for so-called communist parties is not particularly good, and I would espouse a form of anti-capitalist libertarian communist form of self-reliance that holds that even Corbyn is not the salvation people think he is, but having said all of that, if Corbyn’s Peace and Justice movement has any more of the civil liberties concerns that Corbyn seems to be expressing, then I just might be willing to support it, solely on the grounds that it might be the only chance within the British electoral system of seeing an actual civil-libertarian movement in mainstream British politics. Of course, the only problem with this is that it doesn’t matter if (1) the party never makes any siginificant victories and (2) the British union is destroyed from within as a result of Scottish and Welsh secession which I sincerely hope happens. Seriously, in all honesty, the fragmentation of the United Kingdom into small but independent nations is the one thing that might make Brexit worth it in the end, and the main reason that I don’t actually hold out hope for Labour undoing Brexit, and it’s for this reason that I personally would vote for Plaid Cymru in any Welsh elections, despite the fact that I don’t consider them to be all that left-wing, solely for the possibility of bringing about Welsh independence.

But, if Peace and Justice were to come along as an actual, then despite everything I might be inclined to support them against the Conservatives and against the Labour Party. Because let’s face it, the Conservatives are not the only carceral force in British politics, and the Labour Party has no interest in civil-libertarianism and ultimately no desire to resist the post-pandemic trend towards states of exception, rather they merely want their own, more “competent”, more “forensic”, quasi-social-democratic carceral state.

An anti-government protester photographed in London; image from South China Morning Post

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