THERE are plenty of reasons to be wary of governments which award themselves additional powers; I would give my vote to any politician who promised to introduce no new laws, but instead repeal as many as possible.

Most people, however, accept that the emergency powers being debated in Westminster yesterday are a proportionate response to the coronavirus, and the unprecedented impact it has had. Indeed, the necessity for them is that unlike citizens, who are considered free to do anything not expressly prohibited by law, governments cannot assume powers without legislation that explicitly grants them.

Naturally, there are people — the ones under the delusion that the current Government is “the most right-wing ever” — who see this as a fascist coup along the lines of Kristallnacht. These are often the same people that have been complaining the Government hasn’t done enough to tackle the virus, even while declaring that the economic consequences of austerity have killed hundreds of thousands, and despite the fact that these opinions are mutually contradictory.

OK; we’ve grasped that they take a dim view of Boris Johnson. But even those (the majority of the population, according to current polls) who think the Government has, by and large, handled the crisis fairly well are right to cast a critical eye over these provisions.

Almost all governments of every political stripe are reluctant to divest themselves of powers once they have acquired them. In America, for example, the provisions of the Patriot Act, introduced hastily and with little oversight after the terrorist attacks of 2001, are still in place, representing a restriction on civil liberties that would have been highly controversial 20 years ago.

So a built-in two-year expiry date, and the undertaking to review the powers at six-month intervals, are essential components of this legislation. And, once this crisis is over, we should remind the powers that be that the extraordinary powers with which the state has armed itself are just that — out of the ordinary.

Mr Johnson will be aware of the cautionary account given by Livy of Lucius Manlius Imperiosus, appointed dictator in 363BC to tackle a plague (by hammering a nail into a temple wall, though expert opinion on the epidemiological usefulness of this measure has moved on), who then got too full of himself, and was removed from office and put on trial. The Prime Minister no doubt intends to cast himself more in the mould of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who, after being appointed dictator in 458BC, swiftly achieved victory, immediately renounced his powers and retired back to his smallholding.

The reason that we remember Cincinnatus, and cities are named after him, however, is because his example is such an unusual one. Lord Acton’s line about what absolute power tends to do corresponds far more to the normal pattern.

Despite that, there’s a surprising level of idiotic approval (on social media, naturally) of quite despotic powers, from people who will tell you that “there are no libertarians in an epidemic” or that, whenever we face a crisis, the measures that we turn to are basically socialism in action. The objection of the Prime Minister’s critics is not so much to sweeping powers, but the fact that he’s the one who gets to employ them.

Exceptional measures are either necessary or not, and whether you approve of the current government’s other policies doesn’t come into that. If, when the exceptional circumstances have passed, such powers ought to be rescinded, it’s because they offer too much power to the government of the day — and they do so whatever its political colour.

As it happens, we might just as easily learn the opposite lesson from what has happened in response to the pandemic. Some of the action to help us deal with the situation has been a matter of relaxing regulation — for example, allowing restaurants and bars to work on a delivery and takeaway basis without applying for a different licence, recognising the qualifications of retired medical professionals, or paring back the bureaucracy around, to take only a few examples, sick leave, council powers over care duties, death certificates, tax credits, freelance tax returns, VAT payments and housing benefit.

At a more informal level, too, it’s already apparent that some things which have been considered normal practice are less than vital: commuting and face-to-face meetings turn out not to be necessary to many industries, which may even be more productive without them. And despite the irresponsibility of panic buyers, even parts of the economy that cannot be conducted remotely, such as the food supply chain, seem fairly resilient and adaptable.

When the time comes to challenge police powers to shut down public gatherings, or other examples of what would normally be overreach, but most of us concede are currently essential, we may also want to consider whether those regulations that were quickly and easily dropped to cope with the crisis were all that useful in the first place.

There is a danger of seeing the coronavirus crisis as a way of vindicating all sorts of changes that happen to correspond with the political priorities you already hold. I’ve seen arguments that it proves the case for almost any hobby-horse: universal basic income, nationalising the railways, increasing teachers’ pay, abolishing zero-hours contracts, introducing bans on vaping and junk food and, inevitably, stopping Brexit.

We will not be able to know what mistakes have been made (and some mistakes are bound to have been made) in dealing with this pandemic until we have the benefit of hindsight. Nor is it likely that current predictions of quite how the world will change as a result of it are going to be accurate — even if we assume that the world will almost certainly be changed by it.

But if we accept – as most responsible people now do — that strange and dangerous times justify extreme measures, and demand sacrifices and altruistic responses from each of us, then it is because we understand that the circumstances are unprecedented. When we get back to normal, whatever the new normal turns out to be, we must insist that our laws and freedoms do as well.

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