POLITICIANS are always warning us about the dangers of power: it’s the sort of thing you have to look as if you disapprove of if your entire purpose in life is acquiring it. It was Lord Acton who wrote “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, in connection with papal infallibility (which he opposed). But it wasn’t a novel thought: Pitt the Elder said something similar.

Acton, a devout Catholic, and a Liberal in politics, was arguing that popes and kings (or governments) shouldn’t have different criteria applied to them – and went on to say that great men were usually bad men. In one of the foundational texts of political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes argued that “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power” was a general inclination of mankind. You’d imagine that since he called the book Leviathan, after the Biblical monster, he disapproved of rulers having too much power, but though he goes on about a social contract, he basically argues the opposite.

His famous line about life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Hobbes was 91 when he died) was a warning of what you got without a government with absolute power – tyranny wasn’t a different kind of sovereignty, but a name for government you didn’t like. If you didn’t like a democracy, you called it anarchy.

The contemporary consensus is not that, to be a member of a society, you must concede absolute power to the government of the day. All modern politicians pay lip service – if little else – to the idea that they are the people’s servants. Yet it’s quite difficult to think of instances where any government, having awarded itself powers, cheerfully relinquishes them.

It’s true that income tax, introduced as a temporary measure in 1799 by the other William Pitt, was abolished after a few years. But you may have noticed that it came back, with knobs on. The requirement to carry identity cards was abolished after the war, but that, too, looks set to return.

Much written about the Thatcher years uses the phrase “rolling back the state” but, besides privatisation, it’s not obvious that it actually happened. The only place I can see evidence of Mrs Thatcher herself mentioning it is in her Bruges speech, where she was complaining that it was all about to be reversed by the EU.

All the same, it is depressing to watch a nominally Conservative government award itself a succession of extraordinary powers with hardly any oversight at all. The SNP Government is, of course, doing the same, but it already had a track record of authoritarian, or at least cavalier, tendencies towards civil liberties (the named person legislation, the ludicrous, short-lived Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, described by one sheriff as “mince”).

Measures that involve shutting down great swathes of the economy, suspending the livelihoods and education of, or effectively imprisoning, huge chunks of the population ought to have a remarkably high threshold to clear, and be subject to the most careful scrutiny.

To say as much is not to align yourself with the ranks of anti-vaxxers and extreme libertarians who think rules about face masks in shops herald some sort of Khmer Rouge regime. You could quite easily support all the measures Westminster and Holyrood propose, but still believe that they require more oversight and explicit democratic consent.

If – as a surprising number of people seem to – you’d like to call the police when there are seven people in the neighbours’ garden, you ought to want the fullest justification for the policy, for several reasons.

The first is the question of what any measures are designed to achieve: the initial lockdown, which had widespread approval and compliance, was to contain initial transmission and give the NHS preparation time. It’s not clear that any second widespread lockdown could do the first part of that, and the second half is in place already – one reason why, though infections are rising, the health service is still coping.

The second, after constantly changing guidance that has led to many people becoming thoroughly confused about what is permitted, is to provide clarity and consent. The Scottish Government has, in presentational terms, looked less shambolic than the UK one on this, but has still introduced shifts in the rules that even those enforcing them often seem unsure of. And since, for understandable reasons, we essentially apply the same measures as other parts of the UK, minor differences are confusing without affording any obvious additional utility.

The third reason – one that did not much apply at the beginning of this crisis, but is certain to become more pronounced – is that there is no point in any policy likely to meet with widespread resentment or outright disobedience. Failure to make a rigorous and convincing case for any restriction is bound to end up with that reaction.

Partly because the case is now harder to make, because measures that seemed appropriate in the first instance are either less obviously useful at a different stage of the pandemic, or – as some will argue – because they have been shown not to have worked. But even among those who think they did, and are prepared to be convinced they should continue, many will feel, as they were always bound by this stage, growing fatigue, impatience and scepticism.

Making a reasoned case might win them round: threatening to impose £10,000 fines will not. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a better way to undermine any track and trace system than such a tactic, which gives no one an incentive to comply, and a very good reason not to.

A great many natural conservatives are horrified to find the government ignoring basic liberties, and tanking the economy the while. Quite a lot of Conservative MPs are alarmed by how ineffectual they look while doing so. Back in March, there was much emphasis on the temporary nature of this regime. It’s clear that we’re going to be in extraordinary circumstances for longer than anyone hoped, but that makes it the more important that we have a clear justification and discussion of what happens now. Most people seeking power, after all, have some idea what they want it for.

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