Where now for trust and respect towards the authorities?

TRAVELLING on the train last month, listening to the announcements instructing people to wear face masks, I wondered whether I was witnessing mass civil disobedience.  Only a few people were wearing masks.  No-one put them on when the announcements were made.

Sadly, this was not a revolution, more a disillusion.  A general recognition that, what we had been told, no longer applied, even though we were still being told it.  The ‘authority’ in charge of passenger train announcements simply hadn’t caught up with the people.  Elsewhere other ‘authorities’ were quietly hoping things would go away and be forgotten about.  Most obviously Partygate, and Durhamgate, but more widely the whole covid fiasco.

As Jon Dobinson wrote here last week, the essential point about Partygate was that it was NOT the rule-breaking that was the problem, it was the rule-making.  Many of us did not recognise the logic or authority of the restrictions imposed on us during the last two years.  It now appears that we were not alone; many of those who were in charge of ‘the rules’ shared our views and acted accordingly in private, but not in public or when voting for restrictions in light of THE science.

So what does this mean for our respect for the law, it’s partners in crime, guidance and science, and our respect for authority?  When authority does not recognise itself, what is left?

Remember This…

Looking back over the past two years there are a few important things to remember.

Laws and guidance were introduced at break-neck speed.  There was a lack of due process with the House of Lords and the Commons being bypassed.  MP’s were given little time to digest lengthy and complicated documents. 

Suddenly science had become singular.  This may be helpful if you’re an Oxford PPE educated generalist; but not if you’re actually interested in getting to the truth of new phenomena.  Whilst the measures implemented over-turned much conventional medical and public health wisdom, only one version of this new science was allowed, protected by fact checkers and AI based misinformation bots.

This science placed an over-reliance on a narrow group of experts, failing to take account of wider views and impacts.  Expertitis and safetyism prevailed.  Global forces such as the WHO came to prominence.  Many who had voted to ‘take back control’ from the EU were surprised that it might be handed to an unelected organisation funded by someone with a track record like Bill Gates.  

The common sense of ordinary people was abandoned at the expense of the ‘wisdom’ of professionals who have little connection to the real world.  The people were treated with contempt by those who laid down the rules and those who gained authority from implementing them.

On a positive note, armed with the knowledge that the government has used psychological persuasion techniques to force us to comply, will we ever take notice of state messaging again?

Respect is a Two-Way Street

Respect for the law and trust in the authorities is something we should value.  We can accept mistakes if those who make them correct their course or admit they were wrong.  For too long the UK government and its advisers failed to do this with the laws effectively running for the full two years as originally scheduled.  In August 2020 many of us felt there was hope.  Little did we realise there would be another year and a half to go.

During that year and a half many of us witnessed wholescale abuse of power and authority.  The police made snatch arrests.  Council officials enforced guidance as if it was law.  Penalty notices were issued and paid.  Businesses were destroyed.  Education and health suffered.  

Whilst things have improved in the past few months they are not over yet.  There are some positives.  The local support group we set up helped a member get an apology from the local hospital for refusing to treat their son who was not wearing a mask.  The CPS offered no evidence in a case brought against someone who had been charged with the crime of being on the beach during lockdown.  The Covid-19 Inquiry has been set up and has acknowledged the importance of wider harms. 

On the negative side insolvency practitioners are reporting record levels of small businesses needing their help.  In the past two month the local police have ‘advised’ two venues against allowing events to be held on their premises.  They are still raiding people’s houses based on what will most likely turn out to be false premises.  And at a wider level there is still something missing.  

The simple conclusion is that, as a result of the past two years, the number of people who lack trust in the authorities has increased.  Like respect, trust is earned.  It is like a savings bank of credit built up over time.  Once broken, the bank is emptied and goes in to the red.  How will that trust be restored?  

What to Do?

We must never let this happen again.  We need to fight the modern tendency toward virtuous, confirmatory decision making and make sure we tackle the deeper complexities of problems.  Perception management needs to make way to actually sorting things out.

My view is that Covid was merely a fairly bad virus, made worse by underlying health inequalities, a variable NHS and the measures implemented in response to it.  The best response was to be healthy, a message significantly absent during the past two years.

The complete lack of an effective opposition during Covid was of deep concern.  We need a wider range of voices to be heard.  Breaking the political control of the police by electing independent police and crime commissioners would be a small step forward.

If I was in government I would, at this point, seek to apportion a reasonable proportion of blame on to the advisers who led them astray.  I would also take measures to reduce the influence of global agencies such as the WHO.  I am not convinced this is going to happen.  Instead, I suspect we are going to be expected to quietly forget about it all.  We will not.

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Nigel Jacklin is a statistician and market researcher based in East Sussex.  He has worked with a number of different groups challenging the measures taken by the UK government in response to Covid-19. Photo by the author.