How Covid-19 is a gift to would-be dictators – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Emergency powers to deal with the coronavirus pandemic must only be temporary, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.

By Alex Cole-Hamilton
Wednesday, 15th April 2020, 7:30 am
Police on patrol in Inverleith Park during the ongoing lockdown  (Picture: Mark Scates/SNS Group)
Police on patrol in Inverleith Park during the ongoing lockdown (Picture: Mark Scates/SNS Group)

I can’t sit still at the best of times. An internal motor hums within me and spurs me to be busy. So as we enter week four of lockdown I’m finding this much harder than I was. I know I’m not alone. The novelty has worn off, the original flush of adrenaline has subsided and boredom is setting in for most, but we need to keep going. We let up now and the virus will begin to rage through our communities again so we have to stick with it.

The lockdown matters and our observance of it is key, not just to flattening the curve but to ensuring that we get out of this together and with as few lives lost as possible. For a time that means surrendering some of our freedom, but we need to be clear what that means and so do those policing it.

I have written before about how, even in the teeth of an international crisis such as this, we must remain vigilant as to how far we allow those freedoms to be eroded. Two weeks ago, the Scottish Government tried and failed to abolish jury trials. For nearly 800 years, our juries have sat, uninterrupted by either pandemic or war. The cessation of jury trials in this crisis is a step that has been resisted by every other democratic country in the world. Had the Scottish Government persisted with the measure we would have been alone in the world in that regard.

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Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinbugh Western (Picture: Tom Eden/PA Wire)

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Thanks to a massive outcry from opposition parties and the legal ­profession itself, it relented and ­withdrew the proposal. It felt like one of the most important things I’ve helped to achieve in my career. The removal of trial by jury is an extreme example, but we need to watch the small stuff too.

Videos and written accounts have appeared online over the past few days of well-meaning police officers overstepping their new-found authority. There was the female constable in Rotherham castigating a family for allowing their little girl to play in their own front garden, stating that they were in breach of lockdown and should not leave their front door. Then there was the community police team in Leighton Buzzard proudly declaring how many people they’d quizzed in the socially distanced queue at Sainsbury’s about what products they were shopping for and unilaterally deciding what was classed as an essential purchase. Another force tweeted about patrolling the non-essential product aisles of their local Asda shooing away any shoppers who ventured there.

Nowhere in any of the emergency laws passed by either Westminster or Holyrood does it say that while ­shopping for essential food and ­medicine in my local supermarket, that I can’t also pick up a new fish slice or some hair clippers.

We need the police to enforce lockdown but there have to be limits to that authority. Police derive their power from laws passed by democratically elected representatives – parliamentarians, as servants of the people, gift that authority to the police.

At this time of crisis we need to be careful that the freedoms we surrender are the right ones and that we’ll get them back when this is all over.Around the world, countries are postponing elections, others have ramped up the reach of surveillance on their own people. Hungary has given near dictatorial levels of power to its prime minister. It’s a worrying time. As Thomas Valasek, a Slovak law maker, recently said: “This is a situation where it’s far too easy to make ­arguments for undue interference with civil rights and liberties.”

Much of this interference is necessary in these unprecedented days, but we need to be absolutely clear where the limits of the new powers we hand our authorities lie, that they are temporary measures and that they will be handed back.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.

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