'Crazy talk’: critics decry Christmas lockdown

Rule of eight: many families plan to meet for Christmas despite government restrictions © Jude Edington

Could there be a Christmas rebellion? As Britain faces a cruel winter, some say they will ignore coronavirus restrictions over the festive season, threatening government authority.

Cavalcades of cars chugging up the M4, only to be sent home at the Welsh border. Elderly relatives waved at through closed windows. Turkeys and puddings eaten outside in the freezing cold.

Christmas might be rather different this year. Under the UK government’s pandemic rules, people who do not live together must meet in the open air. Gatherings must stick to the rule of six. In those regions under stricter restrictions, even visiting one’s family is forbidden.

The prospect of a cancelled Christmas has alarmed some. “The idea of potentially not being able to sit around a table with my daughters and in-laws,” said actor Danny Dyer, “is crazy talk to me”.

Many agree with him. On Tuesday, BBC presenter Victoria Derbyshire apologised for saying she would spend Christmas with her seven-strong family. A letter penned by the Lib Dems to Britain’s devolved governments asks them to “accept the inevitability” of festive travel between different regions.

The dissent may augur a dwindling of government authority. “I’ll be looking at the science,” claims writer Sathnam Sanghera in The Times, “rather than trusting the guidance of this chaotic and cynical government”. By not consenting to the rules, Sanghera is contesting the legitimacy of the rule-makers themselves.

The idea that governments are validated by the consent of the governed dates back to the medieval Italian scholar Marsilius of Padua. It gained traction as Europeans explored democratic political systems. “The power of kings and magistrates,” wrote English poet and revolutionary John Milton in 1649, “is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people, to the common good of them all”.

On this basis, a Christmas revolt is quite possible. In October, one academic paper found that 56% surveyed claimed “no confidence on balance” in the country's Covid-19 response. If the public does not trust the government to act in the public’s interest, it has the right to tussle against its rulings.

In this, they have a precedent. In March, senior government adviser Dominic Cummings appeared to break lockdown rules on a cross-country trip. If he ignored restrictions he was involved in creating during the spring peak of coronavirus, then what obliges members of the public to adhere to them over Christmas?

On the other hand, the government could preempt turmoil by changing their own rules. Civil disobedience over Christmas would be an embarrassing occurrence, both at home and internationally. It would severely damage the government’s claim to govern for the governed.

By easing restrictions over Christmas, the government could appear to be responding to the will of its citizens. It is, after all, no stranger to such changes, as u-turns over its track and trace app, free school meals and exam results have already demonstrated this year. Lockdown exemptions for Christmas could, temporarily at least, restore the populace’s consent.

Could there be a Christmas rebellion?

Will of the people

It’s possible, say some. The government’s performance in the pandemic so far has dented their authority, and Christmas has already become a hot topic. Several influential public figures already have openly declared an intention to disavow the rules. Unless the government changes tact and makes special allowances for the holidays, it is inevitable that people will decide to take the law into their own hands.

Impossible, say others. The government will not let it happen. Its sovereignty derives from the consent of the governed. A mass withdrawal of consent would challenge the government’s claim to authority. Rather than risk this loss of legitimacy — not to mention the headache of social unrest and consequential loss of faith — ministers will swerve to forestall a rebellion before allowing it to happen.

You Decide

  1. Should people be punished for breaking coronavirus guidelines over Christmas, and if so how?
  2. What gives a government sovereignty to rule?

Activities

  1. Write an 8-line poem in rhyming couplets, describing the perfect Christmas. If you like, read it out to the class.
  2. You are the government minister responsible for lockdown restrictions. Write a speech that aims to persuade people not to visit their family over the Christmas period, showing sympathy to their sufferings.

Some People Say...

“Every man having been born free and master of himself, no one else may under any pretext whatever subject him without his consent”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Franco-Swiss philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that some form of consent is integral to an ideal democratic system. As far back as 1776, the US Declaration of Independence stated that governments derive their “powers from the consent of the governed”. The same idea appears in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In countries like the UK where there are no specific laws enshrining consent, elections and referendums can be regarded as an outlet for renewing or withdrawing consent from the ruling government.
What do we not know?
There remains debate over whether democracies actually rely on consent in practice. For Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, it was a fiction; for contemporary linguist Noam Chomsky, consent can be manufactured by propagandistic media, making it unreliable. Even those who believe consent is necessary for a democracy disagree on its nature: whether it should be overtly volunteered or tacitly accepted, and whether it requires literal, unanimous assent from a populace or functions hypothetically.

Word Watch

Cavalcades
A formal procession, based on the Italian word for horse-riding.
Rule of six
The UK government has ruled it illegal for more than six people to gather in a group, with some exemptions. Some scientists have critiqued the rule as arbitrary.
Dissent
To hold or express opinions against a prevailing idea or policy, once used in England and Wales describe those who rejected the Anglican church.
Augur
To predict a specific outcome, named after an ancient Roman religious official who interpreted natural signs to work out whether a particular action would please the gods.
Consent of the governed
The idea that a government’s right to use state power is only justified when the people on which such power is exerted give their consent.
Democratic
Derives from an Ancient Greek word meaning “rule by the people”.
John Milton
Milton, who is renowned for his epic poem Paradise Lost, was writing to justify the execution of King Charles I.
Common good
That which is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a community. Many philosophers have provided definitions over the centuries.
Precedent
An earlier event that is seen as an example or guide to be considered in later similar circumstances.

Subjects

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