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France’s vaccine passport vote: A stain on the centre ground

We hear much, these days, about the “progressive centre”. It is the strain of politics to which many global leaders subscribe, not least in Ireland, where Mr Varadkar in particular wears the label with pride. It is the dominant western ideology: It preaches tolerance and compassion and liberty and solidarity and many other values which are, in its defence, drawn from the best traditions of western philosophy.

The trouble is, very often, it does not believe in these values. Very often, it is more populist than the hated populists it decries as a danger. There is no more emblematic issue where this is the case than on the issue of vaccine passports.

From the beginning, the case for these passports was muddled. Were they, for example, primarily intended to encourage vaccination through coercion? Or were they intended to protect public health by denying dangerously unvaccinated people access to shared spaces? Those two cases were in direct opposition from the beginning. For example: If the vaccine worked, then there was no reason to fear unvaccinated people mingling with the vaccinated from day one. After all, the whole point of a vaccine is that one should be able to jump into a swimming pool of liquid covid and emerge uninfected. And as for coercion – the very idea of it is so illiberal that no politician, to my knowledge, has ever outright stated that as the case for the passports.

Neither, in truth, was it the real reason for the passports. The real reason was simply that the passports were popular. I am, for example, unaware of any poll in a western speaking country, taken at the height of covid, which showed even plurality opposition to vaccine passports. People wanted them, for all sorts of psychological reasons: A sign, perhaps, that they were doing their personal part in the fight for normality. A certificate of good citizenship. A novelty to show family and friends. Or even, at the vainest level, membership of an exclusive club – like one of those wristbands they used to hand out at nightclubs that allowed you access to the “VIP” section.

And so, the vaccine was transformed in the culture, and the public mind, from choice into duty. It became un-Irish, un-British, and un-French not to get vaccinated. The passports were openly embraced by the public, and by commentators, as a sanction on the selfish. Horror was expressed openly at the idea that an unvaccinated person might be served in a pub, or in a restaurant. National broadcasters, not just in Ireland, ran headlines like this:

This is precisely the kind of extremism and populism which the “centre ground” is supposed to stand against, in theory, with their love of human rights and due process and “taking the heat” out of politics. The idea that people should be discriminated against in state policy on the basis of medical status is objectively extremist. It is even more extreme when the basis for that discrimination is so self-evidently shaky: If vaccinated people are protected by the vaccine, then why would they need to worry about being around the unvaccinated?

It was a policy so extreme, and so ridiculous, that it has spawned a generation of conspiracy theories, and disaffected dissidents. You will now find, in this country, and others, more people than ever before willing to believe that vaccine passports and lockdowns and other measures were part of some nefarious global plan orchestrated from overseas.

And so we come to yesterday’s vote in France.

It was the extreme (and they are extreme) right which partnered with the extreme (and they are extreme) left to insert a law prohibiting the use of vaccine passports in the future.

On this vote, a basic test of commitment to both science and, more importantly for politicians, liberty, the centre ground failed the test.

Centrists often talk about something called “horseshoe theory” in politics, which is the phenomenon whereby if someone becomes extreme enough on the right, they eventually have more in common with the extremist on the left than the person in the centre. But what they should really be reflecting on is something much more dangerous: The narrowing elitism of the centre ground.

The far right and the far left in politics globally are not growing because voters are waking up each morning and taking a second look at naziism or communism. They are growing because increasingly, voters who believe the same things they believed in 2010 or 2011 find that those things have been redefined in 2022 as outdated, or bigoted, or extreme. And there is no better example of that than vaccine passports.

A decade ago, the idea that we might ever effectively mandate vaccination and lock the great unwashed out of society would have been universally regarded as extreme. Now, opposition to it is held by extremists, and the formerly extreme position by the centre ground.

Yesterday’s vote was a stain on the French center. As the vaccine passports are, and will in time be universally recognised as, on mainstream politics in the west in general.

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