This piece is part of HWO’s feature on ‘Apocalypse Then and Now’. The feature brings together radical reflections and historic perspectives on catastrophe and calamity. How have crises (both real and imagined), and responses to them, shaped our world?

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses a news conference to give a daily update on the government’s response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Leon Neal / POOL / Getty Images) (Photo by LEON NEAL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The UK government is holding daily news conferences on the Coronavirus pandemic, and on 18 March the Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded to a question about further restrictions on the public – such as limiting public transport – like this:

We live in a land of liberty, as you know, and it’s one of the great features of our lives that we don’t tend to impose those sorts of restrictions on people in this country…

It was typical rhetoric from Johnson, who often uses romantic imagery and patriotic language in his speeches and writings. It was however an incongruous moment in a press conference dominated by scientific analysis and practical policy announcements.

The remark struck me, since it is very reminiscent of the type of rhetoric I encounter when studying Britain in the eighteenth century. As I wrote about in my new book Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928, Georgian political culture emphasised the liberties of the freeborn Englishman. Other nations apparently did not enjoy these rights, since they were an exclusive national tradition that was enshrined in the ancient constitution and reflected in the national character. Citizens were expected to be vigilant on behalf of the community and to contribute their services to it, but reacted strongly against anything that was perceived to curtail their individual freedom.

Johnson’s language was historically interesting, and I would argue that it sheds some light on British responses to the Coronavirus pandemic, in contrast with the responses from other parts of the world. While many other countries closed schools and public buildings, stopped holding large events and required citizens to remain in their homes, they looked on with bafflement as Britain appeared to carry on as usual.

As late as last weekend, Britain carried out very little testing, imposed minimal restrictions, and kept pubs and schools open. Half-hearted free market solutions, such as using Deliveroo to take meals to older people, were floated. When on Monday the government changed tack after widespread public outcry, it issued advice to avoid pubs and cinemas – but did not require them actually to close, placing the responsibility on the public themselves. In general, this bespoke a reluctance to tell people what to do. Even the government scientists’ own modelling took ‘behavioural fatigue’ into account: people tire of control measures so, if you start them too early, then people will start disobeying them early too.

London’s Evening Standard by @helloimnik at Unsplash.

The American response has been comparable: while they have been quicker off the mark than Britain in enacting a shutdown, President Trump long denied the scale of the problem and has talked about the ‘Chinese virus’ in explicitly nationalistic terms. The commonalities of British and American political culture are arguably significant here. In the eighteenth century, Britain’s political culture was exported to the American colonies and ironically inspired the revolution against British rule: since this was the founding moment of the republic, this libertarian rhetoric retains an even greater purchase in the USA today than it does here. But that would be a subject for another blog.

Historically, the British state has been wary of imposing anything on its citizens that could be seen to infringe their liberty. For example, the state has historically been reluctant to impose military conscription. The wars of the eighteenth century made huge manpower demands, not least because Britain’s primary rival France could always threaten to invade. But Britons regarded conscription with horror, as being foreign, characteristic of absolutist political systems, and anathema to the citizen’s civil rights. As such, the British government instead relied on voluntarist initiatives and legal fudges to get men under arms. The militia ballot and naval impressment were conscription in all but name, yet had a very different image. The militia was supposedly a force of vigilant manly patriots, defending their families and liberties against oppressive invaders: in a political culture that saw citizenship in reciprocal terms, military service was an obligation that supposedly helped men to earn their rights. The navy provided the ‘wooden walls’ that kept Britain’s foes at bay and expanded its beloved empire: its sailors were lauded as manly heroes by a nation that preferred to overlook how some of them had been recruited. Both institutions could therefore be celebrated in the rhetoric of patriotic constitutionalism, as epitomising individual liberty and community service.

“The Battle of Alexandria, 21 March 1801” by Philip James de Loutherbourg (1802), National Galleries Scotland

The remarkable thing about these responses was their effectiveness: while Revolutionary and Napoleonic France assembled huge conscripted armies, Britain got a similar proportion of its population under arms through largely voluntarist means. As many as one in four men served in the armed forces of the French Wars (a comparable figure to the total wars of the twentieth century). Indeed, Britain continued to avoid full conscription until things got really desperate in 1916.

The British model of citizenship tends to place the emphasis upon the citizen’s rights, whereas in many republican traditions abroad this is outweighed by the citizen’s obligations to the state. France, Italy and Spain are near neighbours facing similar problems, but their governments have had no compunction about imposing tight infection control measures, and enforcing them with their police services. If these European social democracies have been able to implement restrictions quickly and comprehensively, then authoritarian regimes such as China have faced even fewer obstacles to doing this. It remains to be seen whether, as the situation worsens here, the British government will act in the same way.

Perhaps they won’t need to. It was striking how the government U-turned on Monday after their weeks of inaction prompted an outcry from the public and the media. People started to change their behaviour without being told to: sporting bodies led the way here, cancelling fixtures and tournaments, and fans accepted it. I am not going to credit the government with doing this deliberately, but the public seemed happier doing something once they had made up their own minds, rather than because they were required to.

Firefighters at work in London on the night of 10/11 May 1941. Photograph HU 1129 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

As a coda, Brexit Britain has been wallowing in Second World War nostalgia. Expect to hear a lot more about ‘the people’s war’, as plucky citizens do their bit in a time of national emergency. We’re all in this together, apparently. Except that recent scenes of panic buying have echoes of the black-marketeering, rule-breaking and looting that took place during the rationing regime of the mid-twentieth century.

This article appeared first in a shorter form on the History at Northampton blog. 

Matthew McCormack is Professor of History and Head of the Graduate School at the University of Northampton. His most recent book is Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928 (Routledge, 2019).

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