The late Roger Scruton used to say that he had spent his entire career attempting to define what “conservatism” is, and that the attempts had been largely unsuccessful. He was being (characteristically) modest but he was also making a serious point. Conservatism is less an ideology than an instinct (or collection of instincts): to look around for things to cherish and preserve, rather than to censure and destroy.
When you consider the catastrophic consequences of the government’s Covid-19 “strategy”, it is hard to conclude that our current Prime Minister shares that instinct. The last thing any conservative Prime Minister should be endorsing is a “new normal”, the sinister outlines of which we can only dimly discern, and which has been shaped by a reaction to a virus the establishment scientists clearly don’t understand.
Those same establishment scientists are now the problem. In fact, they have been from the start. The PM started by following “the science”; he has ended up being in thrall to scientists who offer only one version of it. Science is a disputatious business, conducted by human beings, with egos, and with an intense awareness that they are always touting for business in the form of grants. Science is never settled; as the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend used to argue, there isn’t even a single scientific method. Or if there is it amounts to this: “anything goes”.
Genuine conservatives are sceptical of ideologies. Mr Johnson seems to have been mind-captured by the most powerful contemporary ideology of all: scientism, the view that the truth is exhausted by what the scientists tell us. He has permitted his Covid-19 policy to be determined by computer models which reduce people, unique centres of value, to mere data points. Those same models are structured so that the less easily quantifiable harms are excluded.
I am not only talking of the fatalities caused by this “lockdown”, real though they are. There are other, less tangible, but nevertheless detectable, harms this government is inflicting on us. We might think of these as spiritual harms. The government has fashioned from this crisis a jackboot which it has used to crush the creative impulses of the UK public (that is the real economic catastrophe). After 11 weeks of lockdown, we have reached a situation in which a mediocre government minister (is there any other sort at the moment?) can look into a television camera and announce that we all must wear a mask on public transport…and we just shrug. A “conservative” government has Stockholm-syndromed an entire population.
Inadvertently, the government has demonstrated the truth of the conservative principle that a government which is unconstrained will expand in the direction of totalitarianism. And this government, so far, has been subject to no significant scrutiny whatsoever. Any criticism of it, whether it is to do with PPE, track and trace, quarantine etc, is offered up only on the assumption that the lockdown is, broadly, the correct way to “beat” the virus (whatever that means). Proper, structural, examination of the policy – whether it is correct in principle – is nowhere to be found. Therefore, the introduction of yet more petty intrusions – face masks being the latest, but not the final – example, can be presented as an “easing” of the restrictions. The government is now performing a sort of authoritarian conjuring trick.
All this in the name of eradicating risk. But it is not possible, or even desirable, to eliminate risk from life, and it is arrogant to try. The epidemiological trajectory of this virus has been pretty much the same in every country in Europe, regardless of the measures individual governments have taken. Pandemics are part of the grubby contingency of the universe. There are some things we can do little about; this is something conservatives are supposed to accept.
In going against the conservative instinct Mr Johnson has made it near-impossible to reverse out of the disaster he has created. This is not because of the “sunk case” fallacy, as so many commentators have suggested. It is because he has bought into the worldview of his scientific advisers. He has been captured by what Wittgenstein called “a form of life” and the language games of the scientists are the only ones he is concerned with. Forms of life are difficult to escape from. Pity the rest of us.
It is a mistake you wouldn’t make if your instincts were genuinely conservative ones.