For fewer laws, not more
You will, I hope, forgive me if I draw a veil for the moment over the debate about the precise timing of a future referendum on Britain joining the Euro. The excitement is just getting too much for me.
Away from the ennui of the Euro discussion, Tony Blair today sets out the central themes of New Labour’s campaign for the coming general election, which is now widely assumed to be set for 3 May.
His speech has been extensively trailed by Downing Street as evidence that a second term will see Blair taking a ‘bolder’ and ‘more radical’ approach, with the government accelerating the pace of reform. There is talk of new 10-year plans for education and crime, with similar long-term strategies to follow in other policy areas.
Radical and bold? There remains precious little sign of it in the Labour government’s practice. More often, New Labour appears timid, insecure and half-paralysed by fear on any controversial issue.
For instance, we have already discussed on spiked the government’s habit of charging towards a ban on hunting, its great token of radicalism, only to rein back as the confrontation looms large. This week brings another fudge on the cannabis issue. The government knows that the drugs law as it stands is unworkable. Yet New Labour has an exaggerated fear that, if it legalised dope smoking, a conservative backlash would follow. The result is the ridiculous compromise announced this week, whereby possessing cannabis will remain a crime, but people cautioned for smoking it will no longer get a criminal record. Radical.
In the language of New Labour, what ‘bold’ really means is ‘busy’. And where they say ‘radical’, read it to mean ‘restless’. Blair’s declaration of intent to accelerate the pace of reform means only that we should expect the next Labour government to introduce even more laws, executive orders, codes of conduct, commissions, inquiries, committees and tsars than this one. Whether the result will be radical or bold improvement is another matter entirely.
Since everybody accepted Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that There Is No Alternative (Tina), the economy has effectively been removed from the political agenda. Under New Labour, the economy has more or less been left in the hands of the bankers and financiers. Blair’s new economic mantra, ‘choice, not chance’ is really just another way of saying Tina, since the message is that there is only one choice to be made if government is to keep the markets stable.
With what was once the major arena for state intervention now off limits, the authorities have turned instead to a restless programme of rolling intervention in new areas of life. For instance, the new 10-year plan for education ‘from 0-18’ is intended to build on New Labour’s policies on ‘lifelong learning’, which involve erasing distinctions between school and home, or children and adults, so that everybody can be treated as pupils throughout their lives.
The government now has such an itchy legislative finger that it cannot resist announcing new initiatives in response to daily developments. One schoolboy is stabbed to death? Something must be done. Two babies are bought for adoption over the internet? Something must be done. Body organs are found in hospitals? Something must be done.
It used to be a truism that hard cases make bad law. Now the accepted truth in government circles is more that hard cases make bad headlines, and that a bad law is better than no law if it at least makes it look as if Labour cares. This is a habit that Blair’s government picked up from its Tory predecessor, which pioneered the habit of passing worse-than-useless, knee-jerk legislation with such classics as the Dangerous Dogs Act and the criminalisation of ‘repetitive beats’ at rave parties. The result of all this is that we live in an age of unprecedented governmental interference in both the public and private spheres, with an authoritarian ethos that restricts our liberties both in practice and in the public mind.
If New Labour wants a really radical approach for the election campaign, perhaps it might promise to do less and pass fewer laws rather than more. In this day and age a truly bold government would be one that was prepared to trust people to live sensibly and freely, without the need for constant supervision and re-education.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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