Britain’s chilling slide into totalitarianism

The arrest of peaceful anti-lockdown protesters heralds a new era of authoritarianism.

James McSweeney


On Saturday, Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner was host to an unusual scene. As onlookers booed, police officers dragged 19 activists from the scene in handcuffs. Ten people were fined. Their crime? Refusing to disband their small protest in contravention of lockdown measures.

The protesters, who included Piers Corbyn (eccentric sibling of Jeremy Corbyn), were an odd conglomeration of anti-vaxxers and anti-lockdown preachers. Piers, who makes his brother look like a yuppie sell-out, was determined to warn his audience about what he saw as the virus-spreading horrors of 5G. Most people greeted the news of the protest with a mixture of bemusement and irritation. ‘Mad as box badgers’ and ‘The police have enough to do without this extra nonsense’ were typical of the comments on Twitter.

True, the protesters’ assertions that Bill Gates was the mastermind behind this crisis probably have not added much to the public discourse. The weirdness of the display aside, there is something deeply unsettling about non-disruptive peaceful protesters being bundled into police vans. For the first time in my lifetime, a British government has drawn a utilitarian line in the sand and declared that no peaceful protest can be tolerated.

Well, not utilitarian in a strictly calculated sense. We still don’t know what the effect of lockdown has actually been, or exactly how the disease spreads. In New York, for example, 66 per cent of the people hospitalised were ‘sheltering in place’ – that is, obeying the rules of the lockdown – when they caught the disease. Sweden, which never locked down, has just 60 per cent of the confirmed cases per capita of Ireland, which did.

Nor do we know what the ultimate stacking of lives saved versus lives lost due to lockdown will be. Cancer referrals in the UK are down by 76 per cent and there has been an alarming drop in hospitalisations for strokes and heart attacks. Perhaps, then, the British government’s reasoning behind banning protest can be best summed up as: ‘We are not sure it is worth the risk, but we could be wrong.’

This ‘better safe than sorry’ authoritarianism hasn’t been limited to the government. In lieu of a scientific consensus on the merits of any particular policy direction, Facebook has nonetheless decided to stick its neck out and remove posts that contradict official lockdown advice (presumably while crossing its fingers that such dissenters don’t have any valid observations). Facebook has even taken down posts promoting protests against the lockdowns in certain US states.

Unsurprisingly, lots of authoritarian leaders see merit in this approach. President Erdogan of Turkey, for example, is so concerned about the risk of misinformation being spread about the virus that he has taken to going after journalists suspected of spreading it. Ever vigilant of threats to the health of his countrymen, prime minister Hun Sen of Cambodia has awarded himself emergency powers to ban opposition gatherings and declare martial law. Wary of the contagion risk of marches, China’s benevolent central planners have been forced to round up known trouble-makers in Hong Kong. According to Journalists Without Borders, 38 countries have introduced emergency measures to restrict journalistic freedom in the wake of coronavirus.

Is it facetious to make such comparisons? Seen from abroad, probably not. If Britain is to abandon its principles by banning protest on the basis of an uncertain estimation of the potential for infection, on what basis can we condemn authoritarian regimes which do the same?

The truth is, however much self-interest feeds into the calculation, the operators of many authoritarian regimes genuinely believe their actions are needed to avoid catastrophe. If law and order are the overriding concern, then this is not unreasonable. When protests toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the immediate consequence was violence and economic collapse. Last year’s deposition of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was followed by a massacre and unchecked pillaging by armed gangs.

Even when, in 1819, British MPs voted through the Six Acts to restrict gatherings following the Peterloo massacre, most did so in the sincere belief that they were saving their country from a violent French-style revolutionary terror. The nature of principles like freedom of expression is that they are easily diminished if short-term considerations take precedence – that is why they must be principles which we defend regardless.

This brings us back to lockdown Britain. Say it turns out that the government is sticking to the restrictions, even if a consensus was emerging that lockdown could be killing more people than it is saving, would you still be happy that ministers get the final say on your right to protest or that Facebook could be preventing you from organising one?

All of this is worth bearing in mind the next time you find yourself getting angry at an idiot with a placard.

James McSweeney is a freelance writer and videographer. Follow him on Twitter: @maccyjames1

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Tony Benn

23rd May 2020 at 5:43 pm

On average catching Covid-19 is done INDOORS by THE ELDERLY, and that when a healthy individual gets it they generally don’t even notice. There isn’t a confirmed case of a child giving it to any adult or of anyone catching it outdoors, so banning football matches, horse racing, swimming in the sea and sunbathing has done nothing except make more people depressed and lonely, which are factors in themselves for illness. Closing schools has only put children at risk.

Highland Fleet Lute

23rd May 2020 at 12:19 pm

Piers Corbyn is right about some things, wrong about others.

He’s right about “coronavirus just being whacked on death certificates.”

To one degree or another he’s right about C02 being “the gas of life”, as he was right to demonstrate against Extinction Rebellion….

Piers Corbyn is wrong about 5G and coronavirus, there’s no correlation whatsoever…

As regards ‘anti-vaxxers’, which in the modern age is just as much an insult as ‘pro-vaxxers’, a proper public debate is yet to be had. So it is with 5G, 4G, 3G and 2G.

Mike Stallard

23rd May 2020 at 7:26 am

Very strange: I posted on Facebook. It was of how to do a Michael Jackson Moonwalk. There was nothing in except just that – a demonstration followed by a group doing it. No, it contravened regulations… Taken down.

Steele Rudd

23rd May 2020 at 6:47 am

Those arrested seem such obvious nutjobs that it’d be reasonable, and appropriate, to allow people to decide that for themselves. The public is much more perceptive than officialdom are able or prepared to recognise.

The sight of no less than 8 of the Met’s finest hauling off a frail old man is disgusting. He may be (and undoubtedly is) wrong in what he says, but what has happened to the very British right to emote personal views at Speakers’ Corner?

Jonathan Marshall

22nd May 2020 at 6:42 pm

Dig up the turf outside a Cambridge college, block roads, occupy vital bridges to totally disrupt the nation’s capital city, bring traffic to a standstill and prevent people from visiting their dying parents and the Plod will leave you alone. Dare to question the lockdown and they’re onto you like a ton of bricks.

Lyn Keay

22nd May 2020 at 3:21 pm

Why is an article about authoritarianism peppered with one sided stats on Covid-19? How does mentioning cases per capita strengthen the argument that we should always defend the right to protest? Cases per capita is a pointless measure for Covid-19 as it confuses infection, the testing done & when the virus was seeded into a country. Even if it were a useful figure it isn’t going to lead me to the political conclusion.


22nd May 2020 at 1:43 pm

Oy, Brendan!!!

Can you drop me an email if somebody leaves a post which actually addresses the point the writer’s making? I don’t want to be wasting my time. As the writer seems to have been doing, sadly.



22nd May 2020 at 11:50 pm

Isn’t the price of pomegranates shocking this year!?

Christopher Tyson

22nd May 2020 at 9:56 am

More recent readers of this publication may not know where its name comes from. The ‘spike’ in the old Fleet Street days was where editor’s deposited rejected copy. My old gag was that spiked is a magazine for people who can’t get a gig anywhere else, and below the line is for people who can’t get a gig on spiked.
The idea of free speech is that it is for readers to decide and judge on content and for readers to be given the opportunity to make that choice. Some will try to exploit this for their own nefarious purposes.
Some racists and misogynists are well verse in identitatian terminology, and it’s not just terminology, they also share with identitarians a post-modern sensibility. Calling out ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ just won’t cut it. Some of these people have absorbed spiked’s critique of victim culture. Spiked’s critique is an invitation to the assertiveness of the autonomous subject, the robust individual, a forward looking ambitious self, as opposed to a frightened embattled self. It is not about attacking or denigrating victims or people who are having a bad time. Indeed identity politics is often attractive to people who are having a bad time but who are not politically engaged and who lack a wider politic outlook or general interest.
Censorship does not deal with these problems. We can use our own reason to sniff out when something doesn’t add up, but this is not a failsafe. If you know about formal logic, you will know that a ‘good’ argument can also be wrong. If the conclusion follows from the premises, then the argument is ‘good’, but some or all of the premises, and the conclusion can be false. All elephants are orange – I am an elephant – I am an orange. That is a good argument, but both premises and the conclusion are false. Which lead us to another problem, I can hear you saying ‘how do you know that you are not orange or an elephant, and what do we mean by these things anyway?’
The idea of ‘truth’ has become highly contentious, educated people even feel a bit awkward or simple minded talking about ‘truth’.
So we need to reclaim the idea of ‘truth’, that there is an objective world, and I am making statements about that world, that can be accepted as true or rejected as false, in terms of their correspondence to that world. This is a bold and controversial thing to say today.
There is a saying ‘if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything’. Faith, belief, a moral compass, these give us a standpoint from where we can make judgements about right and wrong or true or false. In a culture of secularism, pragmatism or relativism in liberal society; religious belief and strong convictions are widely regarded with suspicion. We are left to make subjective judgements based on untrustworthy information, about a world whose existence we are unsure about.
I’m not one to give advice, but I think a belief in something is advisable, a belief in the ‘idea’ of ‘truth’, a belief that that the world that we live on is ‘real’ and that we can make statements about this world that are true or false. Some ideas are not true and some people are bad. We should interrogate our own ideas, and our own ideas should be open to criticism, and amenable to change in the light of reasoned criticism.

K Tojo

22nd May 2020 at 4:00 pm


You’ve proved at least one of your points:
“…below the line is for people who can’t get a gig on spiked…”

Your rather verbose offering is really an article of your own passed off as a comment on James McSweeney’s piece. Replete with generalisations on political awareness, censorship, the nature of truth, the relationship between self and society – I’m afraid you come accross as a retired political science or social psychology lecturer turned bar-room bore (and well into his cups).

George Orwell

23rd May 2020 at 6:39 pm

He made sense to me.

Christopher Tyson

23rd May 2020 at 6:43 pm

‘ I’m afraid you come accross as a retired political science or social psychology lecturer turned bar-room bore (and well into his cups).’
In a possible world perhaps. In objective reality no.


22nd May 2020 at 9:05 am

Comparing the number of cases in 2 countries is a bit pointless. The number of cases discovered depends on the number of tests carried out. Comparing the number of deaths is far more meaningful and here the # of deaths per capita in Sweden is higher than in Ireland even though the population density in Ireland is 3 times that of Sweden.
How can you say that ” 66 per cent of the people [in New York] hospitalised were ‘sheltering in place’ – that is, obeying the rules of the lockdown – when they caught the disease.” You can have the disease for a long time before you become symptomatic so you don’t actually know when you got it.
And finally to equate martial law with a slap on the wrist and a £60 fine is a bit of a stretch.

Highland Fleet Lute

22nd May 2020 at 12:15 pm

Even Hitler didn’t close the pubs.

“You can have the disease for a long time before you become symptomatic so you don’t actually know when you got it.”

Watch out for deadly papayas, all you authoritarian follower types, you….

Tony Benn

23rd May 2020 at 5:46 pm

You say that comparing countries is irrelevant and then….you compare countries.
What you really ought to compare is countries with lockdowns and those without, and the statisticians say there is NO difference in either. Locking down is about to put up to 5 million Brits on the dole while ending tens of thousands of good, often family businesses when we could have stayed open and in the long run fewer would have died.


22nd May 2020 at 8:12 am

If only Corbyn had dressed himself up in silly faux work gear, dug up the grass and blamed carbon dioxide for Covid-19 the fuzz might have helped him.

Mike Stallard

23rd May 2020 at 7:28 am

Or used a knife to kill someone perhaps…

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