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A successful lockdown would be a brilliant vindication of Britain's liberal values

When was the last time that you jumped a red light? Anyone who takes the roads to work in the morning will know that, at busy junctions, there will inevitably be a red-faced cyclist in lycra ignoring the traffic signals. Car drivers seem far more likely to obey the rules. 

This behaviour is down to a difference in norms. Jumping a red light in a car is viewed as dangerous, and will be met with a crescendo of car horns and obscenities. Cyclists see it as far more acceptable to use their common sense about when it’s safe to go.

As we spend our first full day in coronavirus lockdown, it is worth remembering that laws are usually adhered to as much by consent as by coercion. 

In Boris Johnson’s address to the nation last night, he used an interesting, but deliberate turn of phrase, saying that the police “will” have the power to enforce the rules. The consensus among lawyers this morning is that, until the Government’s emergency bill passes later this week, there is in fact no legal basis for the police to act.

Bizarre as it seems when we are talking about the most substantial curtailment of civil liberties seen in most of our lifetimes, it will barely matter whether or not the police can actually stop us from breaking the lockdown in the period before the bill becomes law. 

What, instead, should make the lockdown work is the widespread public support for the measures. A YouGov poll this morning found – in a nation that once seemed destined to disagree on everything by a margin of 52 to 48 – that 93 per cent of people agree with the rules (with just 4 per cent opposed). Some 27 million people watched the PM’s address last night: people know what they are being asked to do, and they accept that it is necessary.

It is this public support, and not the threat of police action, that will be crucial to people staying home and saving lives. Locking down the country could only ever work if the public was willing to embrace it. Fortunately, we do not live in a police state, but that means that we do not have the institutional infrastructure to coerce 66 million people into staying indoors. It would be impractical to flood the streets with police (and would doubtless be counterproductive in stopping the spread), but more pressingly, there could never be the numbers to enforce the measures if people were desperate to evade them. 

Even once the law is changed so that there are clear police powers to impose fines, the reality is that any punishment will be used sparingly. Any humane system will have so many loopholes that there may well be a plausible excuse for those who want to disobey. How can the police tell if the three people you’re with are a part of your household or not? How do they work out that you’re not out for a jog, but are actually on the way to a friend’s house? How can they know whether you’re on the bus because you’re on your way to provide care to an elderly relative, or just because you fancied a day out? 

The simple fact is that if enough people wanted to disobey, then lockdown would not work. It would not be feasible for the government to put in place a system to monitor our movements, at least any time soon. We do not live in China, where Human Rights Watch has described President Xi as creating a “digital totalitarian state”. Nor would it be sensible to place a massive strain on the justice system at the very time when it is struggling.

If people feel too coerced, then this will undermine cooperation, and it will undermine adherence to the rules. Which is why, for all that people have complained about lockdown not happening sooner – and there may well be good arguments based on the science that some of these measures have come too late; I will leave that for the experts – the reality is that bringing our country to this point has required an evolution of public opinion.

The very best people to keep us safe are, simply, all of us. The lockdown will be difficult, but we know that there is no alternative. We need to call out those who don’t stand two metres apart in the queue at Sainsbury’s, challenge large groups in parks, and shame the employers who are still asking non-key workers to still come into the office. Sports Direct U-turned on opening its shops today because the public made it unacceptable for them to do so, not because we threatened to prosecute Mike Ashley.

What we see today is a vindication of a functioning, liberal democracy. The threat of punishment is there. But punishment as a deterrent won’t ever prove properly effective, except in a totalitarian society. Our rule of law works best through consent. The police have a role to play, but it isn’t just up to them to make it work; that job falls to the rest of us.