OPINION: Lockdown has shown that our liberty is really just an illusion

A will can designate your child's legal guardian should you die,

Hugging family members is allowed from Monday, an example of the government restricting our lockdown freedom - Credit: Getty Images

Now we’ve all been bribed into having vaccines we can claim the reward – hugging, the pub, and summer holidays.

Forgive this flippancy and cynicism but I can’t help thinking that the tentative suggestion we use common sense – decide for ourselves when it comes to our health and lifestyle choices – is somewhat patronising and probably long overdue.

History suggests that we won’t want to talk much or remember the shared trauma of the last 18 months or so – as we look towards the future we will be in the mood to forget, perhaps understandingly so.

And although Britain does memorial well, and I’m sure and hope we will remember those who have died appropriately, I suspect the future will increasingly be the focus of our national conversation rather than the recent past.

As the penny begins to drop about the almost terrifying ease with which we took to and subjected ourselves to the restrictions and limitations we have all endured on our freedoms, it may well be that one of the observations we can make is how fragile and delicate our freedoms, democracy and the rule of law really is.

Who would have thought that in the name of the greater good, grandparents couldn’t cuddle their grandchildren? Or the freedoms of assembly be so willingly given up?

This last year has brought home to me how easy it must have been for the National Socialists to have convinced the German people into following them, by tapping into deep rooted fear and creating a culture in which speaking out was made socially unacceptable.

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Hideous though it may have been, the Nazis also argued they were following the science for the greater good, as well as shutting down voices of dissent.

Fear is a powerful motivator – it has led to the most extraordinary collective behaviour, from what we wear, to where we go, how we behave and arguably what we even say or think. I’m not saying the decisions made on our behalf were wrong or misplaced – history will make that judgement – but I think we all hope we never see the like of it again in our lifetimes.

Governments, we now clearly see, hold huge power over our lives, not only through the laws they make but dissemination and interpretation of information they give us. So quickly can they turn from being benign overseers merely tinkling at the edges of our lives.

Freedoms, which are gradually being restored, are hard won, in Britain’s case over centuries, and yet are so easily taken away. The irony is that this week we are grateful and relieved we have been re-granted a titbit of what we willingly gave up. How utterly bizarre that the ability to hug or go to the pub is headline news.

The overall compliance of the British media – the newspapers and broadcasters – towards government policy over the last 18 months has arguably for some been the right reaction, the proper thing to do in the face of a public health emergency.

But let us ask ourselves if the cause had been different or wrong? Would we have even noticed? Would the information we get be trusted or trustworthy? How would we know? Who would ask the questions? Who would face social disapprobation and the outrage we express these days when someone disagrees with us?

If the media is the guardian of truth and justice and yet are compliant - who would guard the guardians?

I know I am playing devil’s advocate and that we’ve got much to be grateful for and proud of – not least our response, collective compassion and the extraordinary vaccination programme – and no doubt we’ll soon be busy forgetting in the pub and delighting in the fact we are allowed to once again.

But the point remains that the easing of these restrictions points us towards an uncomfortable fact that such is the huge trust we place in authority that restrictions on our liberties – however worthy we judge the reason for them – are so easily done, so easily agreed to, so easily taken up and so easily explained.

We may not want to think about it but the relationship between the individual and the state is possibly not what we thought it was.

Even though we are beginning to come out of the other side and have much to be cheerful about, being suspicious of the motives of those in power, being suspicious of power itself is perhaps more important than ever.

And as we look to the future we must not lose sight of the terrifying lesson we have learnt – that our freedoms and liberty are really little more than an illusion and that holding those in authority to account is no one else’s job but our own.

What do you think? Is James right to be worried about our civil liberties? Do you have a response to his thoughts? Write to him at james.marston@archant.co.uk

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