By Tim Farron MP
As we are on the verge of 2021, we all wish that turning the page of the calendar would somehow banish Covid and bring a fresh start. The coronavirus should stay trapped forever in 2020.
But we know this won’t happen. Falls have picked up again, and the rest of the winter looks pretty bleak to be honest. Businesses, especially in the hospitality industry, are struggling to survive repeated closures. Jobs and livelihoods are lost; Everyone is tired and demoralized. And then we have the challenges that the end of the Brexit transition will bring.
Politicians are generally not known as bringers of joy, but we need to offer some kind of hope to encourage people to hold on to the vaccine adoption and the arrival of spring: a renewed call to contract and a vision of freedoms regained. That hope can enable all of us to wait well and come out more united than divided.
I think we can seek hope in the values of liberalism that underpin our society. We British are proud of our civil liberties, but the restrictions on our freedoms over the past year have challenged us massively.
In October, the Lib Dems voted against the extension of the Coronavirus Act. We were concerned that the government was not doing enough to protect carers or those who care about them. I found myself in the same lobby as a number of Tory MPs who were also voting against the changes to protect our freedoms. One of them commented, “Oh, you liberals are actually liberals, aren’t you?”
This got me thinking about how the divide between libertarianism and liberalism was highlighted this year. Libertarians want a minimum of government intervention in people’s lives so that individuals can make their own decisions. If I can’t go to the pub, my freedom is restricted and, for a libertarian, the government shouldn’t have the right to contain it. The same goes for paying taxes. A libertarian would say that I should decide how to spend my hard-earned money without the state taking any of it away from me. However, this is a rather flat and self-centered view of freedom.
A truly liberal perspective looks at freedom more holistically. We are not all isolated individuals, despite the virus’ efforts to separate us. We are part of a larger community, but this means that our freedoms often compete with one another. Rather than viewing restrictions primarily as an attack on our freedom, Liberals recognize that we must make judgments about which freedoms take precedence over others.
This means that we support taxes that take away people’s freedom to spend all their money as they want, as there is greater freedom that comes from greater numbers of people who have equal access to quality education and health care. Liberalism recognizes that if we have only theoretical, but not practical, freedoms, those are not real freedoms at all. How can you be free to get a good job, live in a decent home, and receive medical care when you are sick, when you do not have access to these things due to poverty or lack of opportunity?
The same applies to the virus control restrictions. Health workers’ freedoms are restricted when they cannot keep people healthy and treat them for diseases like cancer because they are overwhelmed by a tyranny of uncontrolled Covid infections. Likewise, my freedom to go to soccer or not wear a mask must compete with the freedom of older and more vulnerable people not to contract the virus and die.
There was a real sense of community and sacrifice at the start of the first lockdown, clapping for the NHS, painting rainbows in our windows and a new appreciation for the vital work of key workers, from stacking the supermarket shelves to teaching our kids. But as time went on, people got tired and there were concerns about how our freedoms were affected by the constant restrictions on our lives.
Now, after a miserable year of a shrunken, shortened Christmas season and many of us not feeling the least bit funny, we may need to look at our freedoms differently. Instead of standing on our own freedoms, we remember the many people who have sacrificed so much to defend the freedom of others.
Those who work on the front lines in the NHS, nursing homes and schools; in employment offices, supermarkets and food banks; and the scientists who worked so tirelessly to make vaccines against the virus. We need to resort to the hope we see in communities coming together, which is certainly greater than what separates us.
We know that these current restrictions will soon be lifted in our lives and this should help us remain vigilant for the time being. My father recently reminded me of the tragedy of the soldiers who had fallen in the last hours before the guns fell silent at the end of World War I in 1918. We don’t want to be in the same position with our beloved ones when we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Let’s keep digging deeper, supporting one another, and trying to balance our freedoms against the needs of others as we wait for better days to come.
Tim Farron is the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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