For me, this debate on the bill and the legislative consent motion is about one thing only: trust. It is about trusting the UK and Scottish Governments to make decisions on our behalf. Further, it is about handing unprecedented power to the current inhabitants of Bute House and number 10 and trusting them to wield it wisely. It is about trusting our police, when handed enormous powers of shut-down, penalty and arrest at a time of reduced scrutiny, to wield those powers virtuously, and it is about trusting individual officers to practise self-restraint when far fewer external checks are placed on them.
We are asking the public to trust their politicians at a time when, pre-Covid-19, trust was a vanishing commodity, and when the Ipsos MORI veracity index recorded politicians as the least trusted profession of all, behind bankers, journalists and estate agents. It is about recognising that, behind the job title, politicians are people who are every bit as worried for their families, concerned for the nation and desperate to keep the death toll to a minimum. Further, it is about recognising that the trust that the public puts in politicians does not exist in a vacuum.
In turn, those politicians are having to trust one another. Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill: five people from five parties and five conflicting political heritages who have put old enmities aside to ensure that we pull together with a four-nation strategy to have the best chance of getting through the situation. Their trust in the decisions that they are having to make is reinforced by the trust that they have in the people who are advising them: the chief medical officers, Chris Whitty and Catherine Calderwood; the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance; and the national clinical director, Jason Leitch.
The measures that we are trusting Governments to take go far beyond what, in normal times, we believe are appropriate for western liberal democracies to take and still be called such. However, these are not normal times. One reason why I am a Conservative is that I believe in the agency of individuals and that, in a democracy, sentient adults should enjoy the freedom to make the decisions that they feel are best for themselves and their families, as long as they accept responsibility for those decisions. I do not accept the creeping hand of state bureaucracy into every area of my life, stifling and suffocating free expression. In a world of competing philosophies, I find myself closer in personality, belief and conviction to Mill’s harm principle, whereby the state should not intervene except to prevent harm to others.
However, all that is suspended as we turn to face the enormous invisible wave that is about to wash over us all. It is no longer a time to argue for the exercise of individual freedoms; it is a time to accept that the best route to the greatest freedom of all—life—is utilitarianism. The only moral position that we can have is that decisions that are taken in the weeks to come can be made only on the basis of what will produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. When a threat is so great and overwhelming, the state is the only actor that is big enough to co-opt, co-ordinate, compel and direct all the multicoloured strands of our response. We have to purposefully and willingly give over to the Government our freedoms and trust it to keep us safe. After the great wave has receded, we have to trust the Government to hand back those freedoms.
I thank the ministers of both Governments for the work that they are doing on our behalf. I trust them to exercise the power and agency that I judiciously hand them as a citizen of this country. I ask them to please do their best work and to keep our families and communities safe.