And this was certainly the case when the Covid pandemic began and both the Scottish and UK governments introduced Draconian rules that put the country in lockdown.
For a time, it was illegal to be outside without an acceptable reason or to meet other people, rules that most of us obeyed – with notable exceptions in 10 Downing Street – in order to save lives.
However, just as the Covid crisis appears to be diminishing, the Scottish government has introduced a Bill that would make some of those emergency powers permanent.
It would give ministers the power to curtail fundamental civil liberties on their say-so, without first winning the approval of our elected representatives. And that is simply not acceptable in a democracy.
The Bill has united Conservative and Labour, who both warned that Nicola Sturgeon’s government was making an unnecessary “power grab”.
Tory MSP Murdo Fraser conceded that some of the measures in the Bill were “sensible long-term reforms”, but he added that others represented “alarming and unnecessary overreach by the SNP”. “The most worrying of the proposals is the power to close schools and to release prisoners early – and the proposed Bill lets them do this without prior parliamentary approval,” he said.
And Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie warned the Bill would give ministers permanent powers to “confine people to their homes at the drop of a hat”. “There is simply no excuse for bypassing Parliament, when Holyrood has shown time and time again that it can respond with the urgency needed,” she added.
The Bill does contain “limits on use of power”. However one of these supposed limits is that the person imposing the restrictions “considers, when taking the decision, that the restriction or requirement is proportionate to what is sought to be achieved by imposing it”.
Sturgeon and her ministers may have only the best of intentions. However, politicians come and go, while laws remain until they are repealed.
Given the example of Donald Trump, who came alarmingly close to subverting democracy in the US, free countries should be increasing the checks and balances on executive power. This Bill appears designed to do the opposite.