A fearful Britain hunkers down to face the foreign invader. An eloquent Prime Minister sets out to rally the nation with stirring speeches. Parliament is presented with an emergency bill to monitor and restrict the people the like of which it has never seen before.
For 2020, read 1940.
Most of us may not have experienced it, but this feels like wartime. The threats that Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Boris Johnson faced may be entirely different, but there are intriguing comparisons to make in the new legislation that now governs our everyday lives. In May 1940 it was the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, now it is the Coronavirus Act, which received Royal Assent only last Wednesday.
‘A Bill to make provision in connection with coronavirus – and for connected purposes’. It is the second part of that description that worries civil libertarians. Of course the bill’s sponsor, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, like Lord Privy Seal Clement Attlee eighty years ago, first and foremost wanted all available tools to fulfil a government’s prime function, to ‘protect lives’.
The vast majority of MPs – as in 1940 – accept his measures as necessary for these extraordinary times. While the Coronavirus Act has a life span of two years, Parliament can come back and review it every six months. But what Hancock and Johnson have been granted in his 329-page bill are wide-ranging powers as ‘draconian’ as any in Britain’s peacetime history. Powers to arrest people ‘deemed infectious’; powers to shut down ports and airports; extra powers of surveillance, through temporary judicial commissioners; powers to restrict and prohibit gatherings and events, and to control premises. And much more.
So cast your mind back to May 1940, to the last national emergency of this magnitude, and contrast and compare. The following passage is from Chapter 1 of All Behind You Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45…
At a salutary meeting on Saturday 18 May the War Cabinet acknowledged that in order to fight a dictatorship, a democracy like Britain had to be prepared, in some respects, to act like its enemy. Neville Chamberlain, in charge of strategy on the Home Front, had drawn up plans for a scenario in which Britain had to hold out against the Nazis alone, without any prospect of help from America. He conceded it would be ‘impossible and undesirable immediately to effect a complete and revolutionary change in the whole structure and social system of this country’. But it was imperative, he told ministers, ‘that we should abandon our present rather easy-going methods and resort to a form of government which would approach the totalitarian’.
Chamberlain worried that the ‘drastic’ legislation his Lord President’s Committee envisaged would come as a shock to British people unless they had been prepared for it. He recommended that Churchill broadcast to the nation the following day to ‘indicate we were in a tight fix and that no personal considerations must be allowed to stand in the way of measures necessary for victory’.
And this the Prime Minister duly did, telling his listeners, ‘After this Battle of France abates its force there will come a battle for our island, for all that Britain is and all that Britain means. In that supreme emergency, we shall not hesitate to take every step, even the most drastic, to call forth from our people the last ounce and the last inch of effort of which they are capable.’
Chamberlain and his officials had liaised closely with Ernest Bevin over the ‘totalitarian’ measures required, as their implementation would fall to his ministry. The details were revealed to the House of Commons, on 22 May, in the revised Emergency Powers (Defence) Bill, which was presented by Clement Attlee as Bevin was not yet an MP.
The new Minister of Labour was to be given, by rule of law, powers that a dictator would have envied. Specifically, the bill required ‘persons to place themselves, their services, and their property at the disposal of His Majesty, as appear to him to be necessary or expedient for securing the public safety, the defence of the Realm, the maintenance of public order, or the efficient prosecution of any war in which His Majesty may be engaged, or for maintaining supplies or services essential to the life of the community’.
As Attlee put it, ‘The Minister of Labour will be given power to direct any person to perform any services required of him.’ Time magazine observed, with some levity, ‘Horny-handed Ernest Bevin could – if he chose – walk into London’s stuffy Athenaeum Club, tap the Archbishop of Canterbury on his bald pate and order him to Sussex to dig trenches.’ The Times reflected, more gravely, that the measures ‘came near to suspending the very essence of the Constitution as it has been built up in 1,000 years. Our ancient liberties are placed in pawn for victory: nothing less than the destruction of Hitlerism will redeem them.’
Yet the bill passed through the Commons and the Lords with only the merest murmurs of opposition. Indeed, it took just two hours and thirty-four minutes to gain Royal Assent.
Bevin could now say with some legitimacy that he had absolute authority over the lives of every civilian between the ages of fourteen and sixty-four. He was confident, however, that coercion would not be needed and that ‘voluntaryism’ alone would mobilise Britain’s workers to deliver that victory.