We were wrong: this isn’t a war, it’s a plague

Coronavirus in Manchester
This is more like 1629 Florence than Second World War Britain

My mother came home from South Africa the other day, so I popped round to see her. We shouted at each other across the front garden. “I’ve brought you some flowers and a bag of oranges!” I said from a safe distance.

“Leave them on the step and I’ll pick them up with gloves.”

They were still sitting there when I drove away. Mum was looking at them suspiciously, as if they might explode.

This is life now. When the coronavirus first hit Britain, our minds went back to the Blitz. But the analogy is completely wrong because the Blitz brought people together. This drives us apart. This isn’t a war, it’s a plague, and there’s only ever been one way to get through them.

In his book Florence Under Siege, published rather prophetically last year, Professor John Henderson says that when the plague stalked Florence in 1629, the authorities threw up a cordon sanitaire around the city, but it didn’t work. The guards got bored; peasants slipped through. With thousands suddenly dying, the Florentines imposed a complete shutdown in January 1630, ordering the majority of citizens to be confined to their homes. Food was delivered to their doors and it’s possible that, for some people, their diet improved: bread and wine every day, some meat, rice and salad. It was as close as the early modern era came to socialism. The flipside was harsh punishment for anyone who defied the curfew, including prison, and that probably meant death.

Workshops closed, games were banned, lovers were separated. Mass was said in private, just as is being done today. The priest would ring a bell to announce that the service had begun and the entire city would join in at home, which is beautiful and a vast improvement on all those videos of Italians singing O Sole Mio on their balconies (that would drive me mad). The plague finally abated in the summer and the citizens took to the streets in a Corpus Christi procession to give thanks. The city must have got something right. The death rate was roughly 1 in 10, a high number, but much lower than in other parts of the country. Verona lost an astonishing 61 per cent of its population.

You need three things to get through a plague. First, as much social distancing as possible, perhaps for months. Second, a strong central government to do what civil society can’t. And third, a strong sense of oneself, a confidence in being alone, a hinterland and, yes, a “faith” in the broadest sense of that word. You need hope.


Coronavirus has completely derailed my book

I despair for the book I’m supposed to be writing: coronavirus means I’ll have to tear it up and start again. There’s a chapter on how classical liberalism (small state conservatism) dominates Western politics and I was quite happy with what I wrote until, last week, classical liberalism walked into the library with a loaded revolver. It hasn’t been seen since.

Boris Johnson, who we all thought was a libertarian, has signed off on something akin to war communism. The government is about to get big – very big – both in how much it spends and how it treats civil liberties. For example, the coronavirus bill would temporarily amend mental health legislation to say that only one doctor’s signature is required to section someone, not two. According to the bill’s explanatory notes, “Temporary amendments also allow for the extension or removal of certain time limits relating to the detention and transfer of patients.” It’s frightening.

There might be strong arguments for bold action and we all want to help out, which is why some journalists have tempered our language. But we can’t suspend our critical thinking just because there’s a crisis. Fiscal conservatives have every right to ask questions about the economic plans just as libertarians have a responsibility to challenge measures that, I suspect, are creeping towards an official curfew.

The problem with leviathans is that once you’ve created one, they’re a bugger to get rid of, which was our experience at the end of the Second World War. It took us forty-odd years to roll back the state (an effort for which we have to thank classical liberals like Margaret Thatcher).

Having built all these mechanisms for fighting the virus – and having admitted that, yes, if a society wants to do something badly enough, the money’s there to do it – won’t people say that the next task is to fight inequality or global warming? Again, that’s what happened in the 1940s, when the war state turned into the welfare state. I fear the next culture war will be between puritans and cavaliers, between those who want to use these instruments to build heaven on earth and those who want to get back to life as it was as soon as possible; back to heaving pubs and long drives to Cornwall, all the old pleasures that are suddenly illicit.

So, speak up! If you think the Government is getting something wrong, say so. It’s not unpatriotic to question excessive power, even when it is used for just ends. It’s the duty of all human beings to exercise and articulate their conscience.