Divine right redividus

For non-Brits, today there is a parliamentary vote on bringing in a lockdown disguised as a tier system to replace the lockdown that is ending. Up to a hundred Conservative MPs may rebel, because the cost-benefit analysis that they demanded and were promised, published yesterday (long after the policy decision!) has turned out not to be one. Most of the rebels, on past performance, will not vote against the measures, since they put their careers above the public good. The Government will win anyway, because the equally useless Labour opposition is demonstrating its disapproval for the measures… by abstaining.

This morning, a loyalist MP was interviewed, and said that the reason he will support the government was his private talk with Boris Johnson, who spoke of feeling the lonely burden of making the decision and being duty bound to accept the advice of his Chief Scientist and Chief Medical Officer. Quite a lot of commentators have sympathised with the insupportable burden of Prime Ministerial office.

But hold on a minute. The picture of the lonely figure on his throne, bearing sole responsibility for the state of the realm, actually belongs not to parliamentary democracy, but to the ancient concept of the Divine Right of Kings to Rule, last exercised by King Charles I until it cost him his head. The idea of the British state is that it is a system of cabinet government, with the Prime Minister in the chair, accountable firstly to the elected House of Commons and secondarily to the checks and challenges of the House of Lords, all united under the constitutional Monarch.

Boris Johnson is only making decisions like an absolute ruler because he has made his role presidential, has surrounded himself with a small cabal of viziers and a cabinet of yes-men, has centralised most policy-making to a massive Cabinet Office with 7,000 staff, and has more or less sidelined Parliament by putting it under absurd COVID regulations and ruling by decree. If he is making decisions alone, it is because he has seized power from those who hitherto would have informed and limited his decisions.

Furthermore, if he is ruled by his two scientific advisers it is his own fault. The Chief Scientist and Chief Medical Officer are government appointees (not the best scientists by some independent criteria), and it is they who appoint the members of SAGE after their own image. The Prime Minister is no more bound to yield to their wisdom than Tsar Nicholas was to Rasputin. If he took the trouble, he could check the data himself, as many ordinary people do. Boris, though, is said not to like thinking about details.

Still, though he has made his own bed of pain, let us for the moment run with the narrative of sympathy for the Prime Minister. Even with varied advice, the buck indeed stops with him. This, sadly, is what guarantees bad policies will continue. For what ruler, especially an absolute one, will admit that his every policy decision this year has served only to tank the economy and society and, if anything, has increased COVID deaths? At that point, it is the court who must contain the king’s madness.

But it is one thing to make a brave decision, knowing it could cost the kingdom (not that the published risk assessment would tell him that), and to have the statesmanship to persuade the nation to follow. Winston Churchill managed that, often through the power of his public rhetoric backed by his character, a rhetoric consciously imitated by Boris Johnson but always coming out as bathos, because the character is deficient.

Johnson, though, unlike Churchill, has followed the modern trend for doing “what works,” rather than “what is right.” It used to be called, “the ends justify the means.” Having painfully decided what is the preferred policy to pursue, he has substituted for the persuasion of others the principle of “whatever it takes to get my way.” And so the conscience of the Conservative “rebels” who have read more science and economics than he has is not to be won over by argument, but by a belated excuse for a risk assessment, meaningless promises of future compromises, and most persuasive of all, the threat that nobody voting against him will obtain any role of responsibility for the next two years.

The public, in turn, has been convinced by the government’s paying millions to make sure the BBC and legacy media prints its narrative, and suppresses alternatives. Its sponsor Bill Gates has also paid millions to the Telegraph, the most respected Conservative paper, which keeps it on message. As well as this, SAGE is well-manned by SPI-B’s behavioural psychologists, advising on how best to ensure public compliance subliminally, as opposed to public participation willingly. And, by the admission of a military man at one of the COVID briefings, the army’s disinformation “77th Brigade” has a large online presence to give the impression that most of the public are absurdly enthusiastic about, and well informed on, government policy. Opinion polls are also carefully managed to make all opposition seem a small lunatic fringe. When all else fails, heavy-handed police tactics and COVID-marshall brownshirt meddling, combined with a studied absence of reporting of public protests, keeps the people either ignorant of brutality or cowed by it.

Meanwhile, it is not coincidental that censorship and abuse of dissident scientists by social media, and even by their own colleagues, come from public medical and scientific bodies receiving government money. And as is now notorious, the “official” scientific team led by Whitty and Vallance has sold the government’s painfully serious decisions though flippant projections, outdated data, exaggerated models, and dismissal of opposing professional voices as “conspiracy theorists” or “voices on social media.” They are completely silent on the growing evidence that lockdowns, mass screening, or masks are of no practical value, or on even possible drawbacks to vaccines. The Health Secretary has on a number of occcasions simply misled Parliament about criticisms of his policies (for example, his misrepresentation of the false positive situation for PCR tests, his denial that there is evidence for benefits from Vitamin D, his false statements that the NHS is overloaded, etc).

In short, the aim of our government, and its Prime Minister, is not to argue courageously for difficult decisions, though they sell that line too for effect, but to make sure they prevail by hook or by crook. Now Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin did some pretty horrific things. But it is not those abominations that made them totalitarians. What made them totalitarians was that they made sure that their own decisions, whether good or bad, came to be the only reality. They used propaganda, deception, intimidation or silencing of political opposition, force of law and force of arms. It was this – and the loneliness of the absolute rule they seized – that guaranteed that their decisions would become evil eventually, however they began. Power corrupts – because the human heart is corrupt.

That is why the unwritten British constitution and its governance, based on common law, an independent judiciary, and a fairly ad hoc collection of checks and balances, worked so hard over centuries to prevent the situation of unchecked power in which Boris Johnson, inadequately, has placed himself. US readers will know how the written US constitution aimed at the same controls on the ability of human evil to corrupt power – and are now seeing what happens when that is ignored.

So, I expect to be in Tier 2 tomorrow, but to pay as little attention to it as I can because it is neither good law, nor constitutionally made. There is, in fact, rather good evidence from Google’s mobility data, showing half-hearted compliance with the present lockdown, that much of the country has the same attitude.

That’s how democracy defends its civil liberty, unless it is prevented.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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