I was at a party in Oxford over the weekend, chatting about Chips Channon, whose diaries have just been published again (thanks, Lindsay!). And how so many like him – the oldest guard of the ancien regime – were swept away in May 1940 after the national catastrophe of Dunkirk. At least their political power and influence was.
It is strange and maybe even a little disturbing how fast this kind of shift happens – and it isn’t just political facts that change, but scientific ones too, as the sceptical but deferential fall into line behind the prime minister’s latest opinions.
We are not there yet, but looking at the pictures of the huge anti-lockdown demonstration in Trafalgar Square, I have been wondering whether it might be possible that they are slowly winning the political argument around the world.
I don’t mean somehow that the anti vaxxers and conspiracy theorists are winning – that would certainly be alarming – but that many of those in the demo were anarchic, youthful types who just got fed up with being told what to do.
I don’t believe – before anyone accuses me of this – that this outcome is good for Boris Johnson or his government.
First, because nobody likes a politician who nips and tucks according to public opinion in a crisis. And that is what he has been doing – they want definite Churchillian convictions even if they don’t happen to agree with them.
Second, because middle England seems to me to need desperately to trust someone – and I don’t mean with the collective health of the nation, but with their own and their families’ health. It is increasingly clear that these two ideas are actually opposed.
The fear is that all this ‘freedom’ rhetoric covers up a very major volte face indeed. No longer is the government trying to reduce covid – quite the reverse, in fact. They are engaged in a huge experiment on us – to see if 60 per cent vaccinations can face down the pandemic, and can do so ahead of all the variants which will undoubtedly come home to roost sooner or later.
I hope this is not the case, but it feels increasingly likely that it is.
So yes, by means open up. Open our shops and lives again. We have to live, after all, pandemic or no pandemic. But remember what John Stuart Mill would have said about masks – given that they may not protect us at all personally, but they look likely to prevent us infecting other people. In these circumstances, they should not be simply a matter of choice.