It took a while, but the British bulldog is back as Britannia waves the flag of freedom in the face of shocking European oversteps around Covid-19. At least for now.
While Europe lurches toward authoritarianism lite in the name of Covid-era love—“protecting your loved ones”—it is the U.K. that is finally standing up for civil liberties and acting more like the country that gave the world Magna Carta. For now, the U.K. holds strong, a beacon in the darkness while Europe capitulates. Remind you of any particular time?
Us Brits admittedly have a somewhat tedious habit—usually expressed during big international sporting events—of harping back to World War II and clutching at our finest moment. But it’s hard not to see World War II parallels given the way Europe is reacting to Covid-19, with yet another country embracing vaccine mandates or some sort of illiberal national policy. And these are not just any countries: The most enthusiastic are those who formed the Axis alliance during the war.
“It is entirely appropriate to reel in shock that the government of a modern and prosperous central European country should enforce by sanction of criminal law the injection of a powerful drug into the bodies of all its citizens,” Patrick O’Flynn says about the Austrian government’s announcement that it will make Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory by law in February next year.
In his article “The Austrian Solution” for London-based the Critic magazine, one of the few U.K. media companies to continually speak out against Covid-19 restrictions, O’Flynn confronts the obvious fact that “as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler and an enthusiastic embracer of Nazism back in the day, Austria has historic form for this sort of thing.”
All the while, Austria’s neighbor Germany continues emitting noises suggesting it will follow suit. At a recent press conference, German Health Minister Jens Spahn, through a deft sleight of hand, coopted the cynicism of others to send exactly the same chilling message but with governmental authority: “Probably by the end of this winter pretty much everyone in Germany—as has sometimes been cynically put—will be vaccinated, cured or dead,” Spahn said. Inspiring stuff.
Italy has brought in the Green Pass, a digital or paper certificate showing that the holder has been vaccinated, tested negative, or recovered from Covid-19. It is required by all employees as well as for cultural and sporting events, long-distance travel, nightlife, and indoor dining in restaurants. Enjoy your pasta outside this December.
One doesn’t want to be disrespectful to these countries, yet when it comes to obvious disturbing historical echoes, it seems the blinkers are firmly on, at least for the governments; there have been significant protests by the citizenry at these drastic restrictions, especially in Italy and Austria.
“Because governments around the world have assumed responsibility for control of viruses in the last year and a half, by doing that they’ve put themselves into a bind,” said Freddie Sayers, executive editor of UnHerd, another U.K.-based publication that has regularly pushed back against the U.K. government’s handling of lockdowns and restrictions, in an interview. Sayers recently reported on the ground in Austria about the government’s initial announcement—preceding the mandatory vaccination decision—of a new lockdown for the unvaccinated.
“When things are not going well, they need to take action, and that’s what we saw in Austria. The cases are going up—it’s constant up and down between countries, with Austria currently having a bad time of it in terms of case numbers—so of course the government felt compelled to do something.”
It’s the civilian equivalent of succumbing to the classic mission creep that has attended so many military misadventures, most recently and obviously in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Across Europe, basic norms of civilized society are giving way to panic,” Jonathan Sumption, a former justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom wrote in a recent comment piece for the Daily Telegraph, on the of U.K.’s most prominent newspapers. “We are witnessing the ultimate folly of frightened politicians who cannot accept that they are impotent in the face of some natural phenomena.”
For now, the British government is resisting the irresistible pull of mission creep that so often leads to far worse calamity. I was shocked by much of the U.K. government’s draconian response to Covid-19 in 2020. But after loosening up a bit, for now it is standing up to those in the U.K. clamoring for more restraints in step with what is happening in Europe: in response to the Omicron variant, the government has responded with limited restrictions, including masks in some settings and self-isolation for those returning from foreign travel until a negative test result, with a review set for after three weeks. Again, there are odd echoes of WWII and its early, crucial stage, when the U.K. was torn between going it alone against the (at that point) all-conquering Nazis or suing for some sort of peace.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is known to be a fan of Winton Churchill and isn’t shy of embracing potential opportunities for comparisons that might be made. The general consensus—backed by ample evidence—is that he is nowhere near being Churchillian, but the fact remains, as O’Flynn noted, that Johnson has shown a degree of political courage in fending off the lockdownistas and mask zealots clamoring for more.
“By the time Covid finally exits its long epidemic phase and we learn to live—and sometimes die—with it, Britain may be seen to have been the doughty defender of freedom and Austria the birthplace of something much more sinister,” O’Flynn said.
But perhaps the U.K. will fold to its own worst impulses, too. As in the U.S., there are plenty in the U.K. (and, as in the U.S., often on the “liberal” left) who seem determined to turn society into some sort of autocrat’s fantasy land, with the population forever inhibited, malleable, and pliant.
One of the constants throughout the pandemic, in almost every country, has been how—usually in the name of loving protection—so many actions encouraged by the secular state have inverted basic tenants of Christianity. In addition to the misery these measures have caused, in Europe this means going against the closest thing it has in terms of a founding document like the U.S. Constitution. In his famous 2006 “Regensburg Address,” Pope Benedict XVI discussed how “Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe” and that “this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.”
Europe is becoming increasingly unmoored from its Christian foundation—and the subsequent vacuum is being filled by an elite that seems determined to tell its inconvenient populous what to do and not to do. While the U.K. has followed a similar secular trend to the U.S., if not more so, it fortunately has the English Common law and the principle, defended so vigorously by the late Roger Scruton, whereby you are free until the law forbids you, as opposed to the Continental presumption that you are free only if the law explicitly allows you. “And it happens that they only say, ‘Do this and do that,’ but there is nothing to do because they do not do anything good, all they do is talk,” Leo Tolstoy’s Jesus says in his Gospel in Brief.
Whatever one thinks of Covid-19, its immense disruptive effects on societies and the world have offered a fantastic opportunity for those seeking to make a play for more power, influence, and, of course, money. Mandates are fundamentally about controlling people.
The suppression and control of both liberty and religion was all too familiar to Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. He was also well attuned to the dangers of the sorts of dehumanising fatalistic tendencies that have characterized the responses to Covid-19 by governments everywhere—in Europe, in the U.K., and in the U.S.
“A psychotherapist is continually concerned with spiritual existence in terms of freedom and responsibility, and with marshalling it against the psychophysical facticity which the patient is prone to accept as his fate,” Frankl wrote in The Unconscious God. “The awareness of freedom and responsibleness which constitutes authentic humanness must be set against this neurotic fatalism.”
Europe appears in the grip of neuroses. How long can the U.K. hold out? Will the U.S. need to offer its aid again? Haven’t we been here before? Why do we never learn?
“The way is wide open to despotism and unending social discord,” Sumption said. “The rest of us should look on and note how easily liberal democracy can be subverted by fear.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the U.S., the U.K., and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and at his website: https://jamesjeffreyjournalism.com/.