There are two things wrong with the current “Conservative Party”. The first is that it has no instinct to conserve; the second is everything it does seems to flow from some clinical form of self-loathing (because it has no interest in conserving anything).
Last Wednesday evening our allegedly liberal Prime Minister stipulated, by diktat, a cluster of measures which add up to a confirmation and intensification of the dystopian impositions from which we thought we’d been granted parole.
No conservative Prime Minister could have made that set of announcements.
An encyclopaedia entry for conservatism would point out that itis not a system of theories but a collection of instincts. Those instincts involve an acknowledgment of what St Augustine might have described as a religious sensibility -we are hard-wired to seek the Transcendent. The genuine conservative appreciates that God discloses things in his own way and according to his own timeline. We know that, in some way, we cannot rest easy unless it is in Him.
And if that same genuine conservative at some point loses his faith – or never had it- then that same instinct will be iterated in a different form: that we do not know everything and that the infinitely available combinations of life – its essential contingency – will always elude even the best science.
Mr Johnson’s ongoing, and very eager, confiscation of those freedoms which up until recently we took for granted, implies that he is morally and religiously adrift. He is, to put it bluntly, guilty of idolatry. And his idols are the flimsy certainties of the “science” he is using to separate grandmother from grandson.
It has become commonplace now to point out that, pace the assumptions of SAGE, there is no definitive and overwhelming scientific consensus regarding the nature and activity of this mischievous virus. What is less remarked upon is that there is extraordinarily little reason, even in more normal times, to place any great faith in science itself. Or, at least, to place faith in it for its own sake.
There have probably been about five genuinely uncontested great scientific theories. The Clerk Maxwell theories about the electromagnetic field and a couple of Einstein’s (the confirmation of which took place decades after his death). The late Paul Feyerabend, the most significant philosopher of science of the last century, spent much of his career subverting the orthodox idea that “science” follows some frictionless trajectory in the direction of Truth, and in his Science in a Free Society warned that a healthy respect for science should not be allowed to collapse into reverence. If you revere scientists, he argued, you will lose track of the science.
Guess who has made that mistake. Step forward our increasingly autocratic Prime Minister.
Feyerabend warned that if you allow the scientists to become part of the Establishment then you will drown out the voices of the Galileo types who come in from the side and effect the necessary paradigm shifts. We now have a government in thrall to a collection of “scientists” which includes, influentially, “behavioural experts” who are also communist agitators, and the ludicrous Neil Ferguson whose “garbage in, garbage out, and garbage in between” computer modelling has done more damage to the country than the virus itself.
There are some seriously good scientists out there, doing righteous stuff in the face of the Whitty-Vallance tyranny. Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford, who demonstrated the PHE lies over Covid-19 death reporting is one; his Oxford colleague, the epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta predicted some months ago (and accurately) that the infection mortality rate of this horrible disease would turn out to be around 0.25 per cent.
These are our Galileo types. There are those who would argue that they should have been part of the SAGE governmental input. I disagree. I am glad they have been insulated from a systemically corrupt set of government committees, which would have found Establishment mechanisms to neutralise their voices.
But Feyerabend’s deeper point should be one that speaks to us now. It is that “science” is not something to idolise. Science is a collection of human activities which contains within it all the moral imperfections of those who practise it. The SAGE committee members are not – any of them – dispassionate seekers of Truth. They are human beings, with egos, and research grants to defend. They are representatives of disciplines which are impressively disaggregated: from epidemiology through immunology through behavioural science etc. If these people speak with one voice, then they are not speaking as “the science”. They are announcing a compromise.
And yet a “conservative” Prime Minister has decided to flatten out our society on the basis of what these people “advise”. He has decided to mathematise society so that what is or what is not allowed is defined by some grubby calculus of risk.
This is not conservatism. It is secular utilitarianism, in which the government gets to decide what counts as the “harm” variable.
Boris Johnson had the potential to be a great Prime Minister. He decided to squander it. His legacy will be this: he was the PM who made it physically impossible for strangers to smile at each other in public.