Lockdowns will further widen political divisions in the West

On matters ranging from Covid-19 to vaccination to the economy, there is a breakdown of public trust in government

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The coronavirus is an objective reality. The threat that any of us faces of infection is best represented as a balance of risks. The consequence of this mismatch is that societies facing lockdown and other restrictions are now deeply divided.

Many have warned that the response to the pandemic could ultimately be more dangerous, even deadlier, than the disease. The interplay between these factors is becoming harder to track and the fallout more unpredictable.

After a series of similar announcements around Europe, Britain went into its second lockdown on Thursday. There was despair that the move was necessary. After sacrifices in the first half of the year, most were glum that the virus is again circulating at an uncontrolled velocity.

Businesses had restarted but have pulled down the shutters again. The short evenings of the northern hemisphere winters mean that the dark hours close in very early, a significant psychological hammer blow. Yet on Thursday, evening more than 100 people were arrested in central London for participating in a mass protest.

It was a variation on a theme. A rising number of anti-vaxxer, anti-face mask protests have flared up in the West in recent months.

Confusingly the massed crowds marching and chanting "freedom" on Thursday were wearing masks. Not medical barriers but plastic face masks. That was because the demonstrations took place on November 5, the date of an annual Guy Fawkes demonstration in commemoration of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, a failed assassination attempt against King James I by a group of provincial English Catholics.

The numbers on the march were much bigger this year. The event has evidently been co-opted into the globally growing revolt. “We are here on an educational tour: the purpose of these controls is not to control the virus, they are here to control you,” a bullhorn-using pensioner shouted.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 05: A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask gestures towards the camera during the Million Mask Protest held by Anonymous on November 5, 2020 in London, England. Decentralised, Leaderless, Internet Activist Group Anonymous hold a million mask protest in London every year on November 5th, the anniversary of Guy Fawkes attempt to burn down the Houses of Parliament. This year their motive is human rights abuses, the supposed rise of the surveillance state and their perceived loss of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
The Million Mask Protest was held by on November 5, the date of an annual Guy Fawkes demonstration in commemoration of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Getty Images

That the lockdown regulations were used to arrest the protesters has been seized on to fuel grievances. To the suspicious, it seems that the authoritarian state is using emergency powers to quash legitimate political dissent. Justification for their protest is, therefore, granted by the arrests for breaking the quarantine conditions. The narrative is bolstered by the existence of very large fines for breaking the new laws on quarantine.

Over time the loss of jobs and the degradation of economic prospects are bound to provide the kindling for a burgeoning revolt.

Resentments are rife across all social classes. Why else would the phenomenon of the "shy Donald Trump voter" play such a significant role in the recent American election? The polls had Joe Biden leading by 15 percentage points in some of the states that President Trump is now projected to win.

The pandemic restrictions fuel this trend because the rules on staying at home takes away autonomy from the individual. These rules might be necessary but they also have an arbitrary impact.

The legacy will be altered politics in many countries.

Nigel Farage speaks next to U.S. President Donald Trump during a campaign rally at Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Goodyear, Arizona, U.S., October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
UK politician Nigel Farage, who campaigned for US President Donald Trump, has launched a party. Reuters
There is an imagined pool of voters, who may not always be outwardly discontented but are ripe for radicalisation on the basis of how they feel about the situation

Protest vehicle parties have a patchy record of changing politics but these are already starting to feed off the lockdown discontent. The populist politician Nigel Farage is the man who did more than anyone else to engineer the Brexit revolution in the UK. With a nose for when a single political message can hit the jackpot, Mr Farage has re-entered politics with a new Reform Party.

Its proposition is simple. More harm than good comes from the Covid-19 response. Again that discounts the objective reality of a new disease but exploits the range of risk factors that determine attitudes towards the crisis. As he claimed in an email at the launch of his movement, the response means "more life-years lost than it hopes to save, as non-Covid patients with cancer, cardiac, lung and other illnesses have treatments delayed or cancelled again. Suicides are soaring. Businesses and jobs are being destroyed".

The choice of name is instructive. The Reform Party has echoes of another political intervention by the actor Laurence Fox who has promoted the Reclaim Party. A former television star and member of a well-known acting dynasty, Mr Fox takes his stand against thought control and the “woke” politics of recent years.

Again this tells us something: that the lockdown plays into the splintering of politics into minority obsessions. There is an imagined pool of voters, who may not always be outwardly discontented but are ripe for radicalisation on the basis of how they feel about the situation.

One study by the US-based Cato Institute found that 62 per cent of Americans felt they were prevented from saying what they believe by the political climate. The libertarian think tank said that only self-described "strong liberals" really felt free to express their opinions.

The further tilting towards the right of the political spectrum, the more participants in the study felt vulnerable for their views. One-third of them worried that their private views could harm their future employment prospects. This fear increased with educational attainment, rising to 44 per cent in post-graduates.

The Covid-19 lockdown is one big reason that the politics of division is here to stay.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National