In the past ten days we have seen the greatest expansion of state power in British history. The state has shut down huge swaths of the economy, taken on paying the bulk of the wages of millions of private sector workers, and told citizens that they can leave their homes only for a very limited number of approved activities.
Boris Johnson likes to say that Britain is ‘at war’ with Covid-19. The parallel is hardly exact, but this expansion in state power is what you would expect in a war of national survival. It is worth remembering, as A.J.P Taylor wrote, that before ‘August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the Post Office and the policeman’. But the first and second world wars changed that. They produced both the modern welfare state and the regulatory state. How will the ‘war’ on coronavirus change us?
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are instinctively uncomfortable with the state having so much more control over both the citizen and the economy. One of the constants of Johnson’s journalistic and political career has been his railing against the ‘nanny state’. Yet he now finds himself ordering people to stay in their houses. ‘That irony is not lost on him,’ says one confidant. Indeed, this is why he resisted the imposition of these extreme measures until he was told that they were essential. Some will criticise him for the delay. But his deep discomfort with this encroachment on freedom means that he won’t be tempted to maintain any of the apparatus of social control once this crisis is over. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is not a ‘big state’ Conservative either. His jobs protection package is designed to be an emergency measure rather than a general expansion of the safety net, which would be far harder to retract.