Emergency State by Adam Wagner – a review

Adam Wagner is a leading human rights barrister (at Doughty Street chambers), a podcaster (Better Human), a visiting professor at Goldsmiths University of Law, long-time public-educationalist, and now an author with Emergency State, published in October by Bodley Head.

The book is a concise attempt to reflect back over the state of emergency that existed in the UK for 763 days as a result of the COVID pandemic. It grew out of the author’s dogged determination to grasp and explain the myriad laws and guidance – he demonstrates that the two were often far from aligned – which were produced by a small coterie of Ministers during the darkest months of the pandemic. His explainer tweets and videos – along with his ever-expanding spreadsheet – became an accidental public service referenced by MP’s, police forces and the public as we all tried to understand what was going on in the absence of clear communication from Downing Street.

Given the author’s specialism in human rights law – he acted for many people in COVID-related cases throughout the pandemic – the book focuses primarily upon that angle, ranging across lockdowns, the right to protest, quarantine rules, and the corruption that comes from so much power being concentrated in the hands of so few with so little oversight. Indeed, Wagner has stated – hard to dispute – that there was a God complex at play in Downing Street during the pandemic.

A point particularly well made in the book is the extent to which we in the UK – and we were far from alone in this on the global scene – turned a blind eye to the effective shut-down of democracy over that period. It’s not that the author doubts that extreme measures were necessary – they absolutely were in those pre-vaccine days. His main concerns are twofold: the way in which the government went out of its way to cloak itself in a power which was both unprecedented and impenetrable for a vast period of time; and how in our fears we allowed that to happen.

Wagner points out that authoritarians are often invited into power, rather than taking it by force. The very purpose of human rights in the aftermath of twentieth-century European fascism is partly in acting as an early warning system against tyranny. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), he argues, provides a basic set of rights to which we can all lay claim. Where those rights are being whittled away – “even gradually” – people are increasingly vulnerable to such tyranny.

The ECHR, says Wagner, can be thought of as a doctor standing constant vigil at the bedside of its patient – Europe – always with an eye for tell-tale signs of the disease – tyranny – returning.

The emergency state measures applied to the UK in response to the pandemic were perhaps the sharpest test to date in Europe of that early warning system in action. The author makes a terrifyingly effective case that we as a nation fared poorly in response, with decision-making clouded in secrecy, minorities and the disadvantaged suffering disproportionately, and corruption rife through the (alarmingly narrow) structures of power.

Our familiarity with lockdown-life can now blind us to how extraordinary that period was. An entire population locked down, Parliament rendered useless, laws created and discarded at will (often without the comprehension of those charged with enforcing them), and the criminalisation of tens of thousands of people at a stroke.

The concern going forward is that there has been a failure to learn the lessons of this most incredible period in human history, not least because of a need to spin the government’s failings in the age of instant media. It is hoped that the COVID Inquiry will have access to everything – although Wagner points out that the core COVID decision meetings among key Ministers were deliberately not minuted – and will take time to delve deeply into everything that happened, and why. But what chance do the Inquiry’s eventual findings have of influencing future emergency planning in a country which has “had enough of experts”?

It is to be hoped that people of the calibre of Adam Wagner will be called upon by the Inquiry, because while it may be that this time we had a lucky escape with an emergency state in the hands of incompetence and power lust, next time we may not be so fortunate.

We might do well to remember all of this: that COVID is not yet definitively behind us, that other pandemics may well be brewing, that the very worst effects of Brexit are still before us, that war is raging again within the borders of Europe as allies go head-to-head in the race to secure winter energy and food supply for their populations, and that we face the very real prospect of a 2008-level global economic crisis partly (though not entirely) as a result of those factors.

There will be a next time. The early warning systems have been ably demonstrated by Adam Wagner in this book to be sounding loudly. Our human rights were tested and (for some) broken in the shade of COVID. We must be vigilant and determined that next time we equip ourselves better.

I have little confidence that we will. But there can be no better starting point for anyone on that journey than this excellent and timely book by Adam Wagner. It truly is essential reading.