Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Look, either it’s ok for people to gather in crowds or it’s not. We really can’t work on the basis that it’s wrong for other people to do so, but fine for you and your mates. Laws, as F.A. Hayek put it with admirable economy of phrase, must be general, equal and certain. Yet politicians, police chiefs, BBC presenters and – let’s not dance around the fact – the public at large now want a more or less arbitrary system where the rules are differently enforced depending on whether they share the opinions of the people infracting them.
This shouldn’t need saying, but the virus doesn’t care whether you’re demonstrating against the lockdowns, or for the safety of women, or against a police killing in the United States, or for the restoration of the Brazilian monarchy.
My own view is that many lockdown prohibitions are disproportionate. We know that outdoor transmission of Covid-19 is rare and, as a general principle, we should trust people to use their common sense. I would therefore allow peaceful demonstrations to go ahead. But plenty of good and sincere people disagree with me. Indeed, if the polls are to be believed, most voters want restrictions tightened further.
Fair enough. Where to draw the line between liberty and security is a legitimate argument – and, during an epidemic, an especially difficult one. If you’re in favour of people being allowed to congregate outside, fine. If you’re against it, fine. But if you want bans on sports crowds, weddings and other gatherings, but think that a special case should be made for demonstrators whom you happen to like, then you need to go back to basics and understand what the rule of law means.
When I say “you”, I include all the Labour and Conservative MPs who have spent this week complaining about the application of a law that they themselves passed only last year. I have no doubt that they were genuinely shaken to see images of women at Clapham Common being roughly manhandled. But what did they imagine would happen when they voted to outlaw demonstrations?
There is no dishonour in changing your mind, of course. If MPs were respond to the footage by easing the restrictions on public gatherings, or at least by bringing forward the end of the lockdown to take account of better than expected figures on infections, hospitalisations, fatalities, inoculation take-up and vaccine effectiveness, I would be the first to applaud. But that is not what they are doing, at least not in most cases. They still want people to be banned from attending the funerals of loved ones. But they want the law to be selectively disapplied when, as in the case of the Clapham protest, they sympathise with the demonstrators.
Not that I want to pick on MPs. They are reflecting the prejudices of their constituents. The rule of law – the idea that the rules apply equally to everyone, and that the people in charge shouldn’t get to change them as they go along – does not come naturally to us. Very few societies, in the sweep of history, have tried to apply it, let alone succeeded.
Think of the TV dramas that we watch: Game of Thrones, Narcos, Peaky Blinders. They appeal to a much older, tribal instinct, a desire to take sides. In evolutionary terms, Magna Carta, the American Revolution and “a government of laws not of men” happened an eye-blink ago. Our instincts and intuitions come from a different world, a world in which two completely different sets of rules governed our behaviour – one set for our kin-group, and another for everyone else.
That, in a nutshell, is why people are uninterested in due process when they happen to want a particular outcome. It is why they hold other parties to a very different standard from their own. It is why the first thing they ask, when they see people protesting against lockdowns, or holding a vigil for a murdered woman, is not “what do the rules say?” but “are these my kind of people?”
The rule of law, in many ways, contradicts human nature. We need to appreciate it intellectually, because we struggle to feel it in our bellies. The institutions of a modern state – legislature, judiciary, media, police – must build and maintain the norm through careful and rigorous impartiality.
Last year, that stopped happening, for two reasons. First because, in a panicked response to the disease, MPs passed too many rules. “If you make ten thousand regulations,” as Churchill once put it, “you destroy all respect for the law.”
Second, because, over the summer, the police – cheered on, it must be said, by the organs of Official Britain – subordinated the duty of consistency to the imperatives of identity politics. Having spent months harassing people for walking too slowly, sitting on park benches or chatting to friends, they dropped to their knees when Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets.
Unsurprisingly, our respect for the law has taken a hit. With each violation of the lockdown rules, the taboo against law-breaking buckles further. The police come to be seen, not as impartial upholders of the law, but as just one more group with an agenda. And the worst of it is that there is no reason to expect these things to end when the lockdown does.