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Common sense? Decency? We can't allow that in Covid Britain, I'm afraid...

Our national character is being bent out of shape by a government that doesn't trust its people to act sensibly

National psyche

When, just under six months ago, we as a people had to get used suddenly to a restriction of our civil liberties not experienced in peacetime since the rule of Lord Liverpool 200 years ago, it presented a test of our national character. Indeed, it threatened to challenge the very idea of whether we still had one. I wrote then how, for all the formidable threats the pandemic posed, including to human life, it presented a rare opportunity to show what we believed to be the best about the British people: kindness, decency, neighbourliness, courage and determination.

Those qualities have indeed seemed abundant. Across the country communities have come together and people have helped the elderly and vulnerable by shopping for them or, since the end of full lockdown, simply by keeping them company. Staff in hospitals and care homes risked their lives with inadequate personal protective equipment to try to save the lives of the sick. And despite the severe hardship of locking ourselves away for 23 hours a day, sometimes in a confined space with little amusement, most people obeyed the rules and the number of infections fell.

Inevitably, relaxing the rules sent the infection (but not yet the death) toll up again. However, this predictable rise has injected panic into an already stuttering government. Civil liberties have been withdrawn again – and at an alarming rate. A vast swathe of the North East and North West was locked down on Friday, and by this weekend almost 13.5 million people were living under severe restrictions.

And with each announcement a vital component of our character becomes dismantled: the decency that restrains us from harming our neighbours is risked by us encouraging to sneak on them. As the rules tighten, the scope to inform on dissident rule-breakers increases.

It is one thing to tell the police you suspect your neighbour is running a drugs empire from his spare bedroom or abusing his wife; quite another to report, after some fervid curtain-twitching, that he has seven at a barbecue. That is, however, what ministers (including Kit Malthouse, the police minister, and his boss Priti Patel, the Home Secretary) urged us to do last week, after the much-criticised ‘rule of six’ was introduced.

Curfews have been imposed and ‘mingling’ banned, as is spectating upon or playing sports. And there is scope for a wide interpretation of who is, or isn’t, in a social bubble, and therefore who may or may not meet up. That people should report anyone violating these often contradictory and incomprehensible rules seemed an attempt, sanctioned at the highest level, to make us into a nation of narcs.

There are notorious historical examples of such societies –  but also today too in countries such as Cuba, North Korea or the rapidly-imploding Belarus. When a regime, even a supposedly democratic one, urges one section of society to tell tales on another, peace, unity and happiness are never the result.

The Home Secretary said, to an interviewer, that she was rarely at home but if, when she was, she saw something ‘inappropriate’, she would "quite frankly, call the police". She argued that "it’s not dobbing in neighbours, it’s all about us taking personal responsibility". Perhaps aware – though it could never be admitted – that the rule of six is unenforceable (though perhaps today police will make house-to-house raids to see whether a seventh or eighth person has slipped into a family Sunday lunch), she emphasised that "it’s all about personal responsibility".

Home Secretary Priti Patel has been outspoken about the idea of people 'mingling' Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph

That phrase brings us back to our national character, and how much this government actually understands it. A government driven by common sense would let us exercise personal responsibility as adults, and not tell us whom we can or can’t have for lunch. When it says a family of six – who are all fit and well –- can’t invite granny, it extinguishes that personal responsibility. If granny herself feels vulnerable, she is old enough and wise enough to decline the invitation.

But instead another traditional aspect of our character, of thinking for ourselves and exercising common sense, is being expunged from the national psyche. Ambitious ministers believe that the louder they shout and the more threatening they sound about doing as they order, the more they impress those who can ensure their promotions. Part of that heavy-handedness is decreeing that personal responsibility no longer consists of deciding things for ourselves based on an intelligent assessment of the situation at hand.

One would have thought that by our exemplary behaviour during total lockdown we had earned the right to be treated as though capable of making decisions such as these, instead of being press-ganged as a fifth column. Can ministers not see how much this infantilization of a nation irritates a people quite capable of behaving responsibly in preventing disease? Nor do they seem able to see how much they risk triggering not just widespread civil disobedience, but widespread distrust in and disrespect for government itself among those who would normally be its main supporters.

That the rule of six was introduced without parliamentary discussion showed how even our elected representatives are being denied a say in how the pandemic is managed. This absence of accountability violates our belief in our democracy and a British faith in our democratic institutions. It also encourages the frequent and capricious changes in the rules that suggest the Government is making it up as it goes along, confusing and angering a generally law-abiding public even more than it was already.

The elevation of the curtain-twitching sneak to the rank of distinguished public servant was the last straw. This is just not how we on these isles behave. Such busybodies have been figures of ridicule for generations – think, for example, of the preposterous Hodges, the ARP man in Dad’s Army.

Perhaps Warden Hodges had a point after all Credit: AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Nasty though Covid-19 is, it is not an existentialist threat to the British nation. When panzers were massing in the Pas de Calais, the German fleet in the North Sea and the Luftwaffe in the skies over Kent, Warden Hodges, ludicrous though he was, had a point. The sneak who calls the police today about the barbecue-of-seven is simply a malicious, small-minded creep – precisely the sort us live-and-let-live British disdain, preferring instead to live by the virtues of their common sense. The Prime Minister, speaking on Thursday, appeared at last to grasp this point. While maintaining, as he had to, his belief in the rule of six, he said: "I have never much been in favour of sneak culture myself," and suggesting people should alert the police only if "there is some huge kind of Animal House party taking place".

The trouble is, if these assaults to our national character continue, and the people are not trusted to act sensibly, there will soon be more ‘Animal House’ parties every Saturday night than there are police, or even absurd ‘Covid marshals’, to stop them. Every sign is that the people have had enough. When that happens they will do what Britons traditionally do when faced with overbearing bullies: they will find a way of asserting their traditional liberties.

Sensible politicians know to respect the finer qualities of the British people, as otherwise some of the rougher ones tend to take over. And should that happen, the worst casualty would be the Government.