The sulking over face masks is just like the seatbelt campaign of the 1970s – the trolls will see sense eventually

The same arguments against wearing seatbelts during the Thatcher years is what we’re seeing now face coverings are being made compulsory in shops

James Moore
Thursday 16 July 2020 17:58 BST
Tory MP Desmond Swayne says wearing face masks in shops is a 'monstrous imposition'

“Clunk Click, Even On the Shortest Trip”. That was the government slogan designed to persuade people to wear a seatbelt when they didn’t have to. And it’s pretty good as these things go. Short and snappy, it even feels like it rhymes, although technically it doesn’t.

Compared to the patronising and mendacious crap the current shabby lot puke out on a daily basis, it’s a work of genius.

Trouble is it didn’t work. There was a persistent corps of people who refused to heed the message and got themselves killed as a result.

Even public information films demonstrating that not wearing one left drivers in the same position as a human cannonball shot into a pane of glass – you can see it on the free section of the BFI Player – failed to move them.

In the end the government of Margaret Thatcher bit the bullet and made it mandatory to belt up. Those who failed to comply faced fines of, as I remember, fifty quid.

And oh the bellyaching when it happened. How dare they! What happened to freedom? It’s an outrage. A monstrous imposition. They’re bally uncomfortable. If we want to play human cannonball we should be able to do so! The police have better things to do than gawking in the windows of cars to make sure people have belted up.

If you’re feeling a certain deja vu right now I’m not surprised. The same arguments, together with the same sulking and stomping up and down, is what we’re seeing now face masks are being made compulsory in shops.

The “monstrous imposition” quote was lifted from Tory MP “Sir” Desmond Swayne, who used it to oppose the new rules in the House of Commons, seemingly ignorant of the fact that 55,000 (and counting) of his fellow Britons have lost their lives from a pandemic the masks should help to protect against.

Back to Mrs T. I’ll say this for her, while she sat at the head of one of the nastier governments this country has had the misfortune to suffer through, one ultimately responsible for many of the problems Britain faces today, she did at least have a plan. She and her ministers knew how to make decisions. When the one on seatbelts was made it was buckle up or pay up and stop your whinging, because we’ve got more important things to worry about, like tearing the guts out of the nation’s industrial heart.

You can’t help but contrast that with her successors. Michael Gove was on telly as recently as Sunday saying he didn’t think masks should be compulsory until Boris Johnson half-heartedly took the opposite view.

Dominic Cummings may even be asked to hoof it up to a northeastern beauty spot to test his eyesight and think up a slogan or two to explain the rules. But maybe he won’t.

History has proven the Thatcher government to have been right on the subject of seatbelts, if not much else. Driving without one now is all but unthinkable. Car companies have made their products screech at people who forget to belt up (good feature that). The laws were subsequently tightened to add belts in the back, mandatory child seats and so on. Justifiably so and with a lot less fuss. The proto-trolls about at the time realised they were on the wrong side of history and piped down.

The point about belts, at least the ones in the front seat, is that if you don’t wear one it’s only yourself you’re putting at risk. Face coverings are different. They are there as much for your fellow citizens as they are for you. Wearing one should help you a bit. It will help your fellow citizens still more, especially if, unbeknownst to yourself, you’re throwing off virus particles when you breathe.

Everyone should wear one, with the exception of those with respiratory conditions who can’t, because it’s the public-spirited thing to do.

Here’s some good news for voters in New Forest West: “Sir” Des said he was so cross it might put him off shopping, which is also what some of his fellow antediluvian Tory members have been saying while they’ve been cutting up their cards.

So constituents are not going to risk bumping into him, or any of his similarly sulky fellow travellers, or any of the germs they may be carrying, in Tesco. That might be even better than masks as a means of restoring confidence and getting the consumer economy singing again.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in