Saturday, 27 December 2008

A terminological inexactitude

Andy Burnham, UK Culture Secretary, is quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 27 December 2008, as saying the following:

“If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach. I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now. It’s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue.

“There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”

When will politicians learn either the value of freedom, or the value of accurate speech? Burnham is happy to trample on the former. He cannot manage the latter. His ideas very clearly do amount to a campaign against some free speech of which he disapproves. And free speech counts for nothing unless it is extended to things of which one disapproves. I might respect him if he said "Yes I want some censorship, for the following reasons". But if he said that, he would be forced to recognise the uncomfortable need to justify his proposals properly.

For those who care about freedom, and want to know where it is under attack, I recommend

Friday, 19 December 2008

Ignoring the value of liberty

Sometimes, too often for comfort, there is cause for concern that those in positions of authority do not attach much value to liberty of thought, word and deed, not for its instrumental benefits, though they are many, but as a good in itself. Someone must be protected, or standards must be upheld, even if liberty is trampled on in the process. Here are two recent examples.

The General Teaching Council has issued for consultation a draft code of conduct for teachers. It can be found at

As well as containing the usual extensive but vacuous reformulations of the obvious injunctions to know your subject and teach it well, it requires teachers to “uphold and maintain standards of behaviour both inside and outside school that are appropriate given their membership of an important and responsible profession” (page 22). The manifest danger of these words is that they would leave a teacher open to disciplinary action because he or she got drunk, attended sado-masochistic clubs or did any one of a range of other things which were perfectly legal but which would attract the disapproval of the more censorious members of our society. This is an appalling interference with liberty. If a teacher drinks to the extent that it affects the quality of his or her teaching, then he or she can be disciplined for that failure, with no need to refer to his or her private life. If, like Professor Unrat, he or she develops a taste for Der blaue Engel, that should not be the authorities' business, even if the students turn out to be there too, or are peeping through the window.

The bossy turn of mind of the authorities, and their disregard for the value of liberty, is revealed by two quotations in the report of the story in the Times on 19 December 2008. Sarah Stephens, Director of Policy at the Teaching Council, said: “It [the draft code] gives greater clarity about what it means to act as a role model, and about a teacher’s conduct outside the classroom”. Keith Bartley, the Chief Executive of the General Teaching Council, said that teachers could be found guilty of unacceptable conduct without breaking the law – for example by belonging to a party that held racist views. He also said “We’re saying to teachers that, as individuals, they have to consider their place in society. There’s a sense that this [code] has to reflect society’s expectations of the people to whom we commit our children”.

Astonishingly, the code also goes on about the value of diversity and of non-discrimination (on page 14). Presumably only diversity of acceptable types is to be valued.

The second example comes from the Daily Mail, on 19 December 2008. Bob Singh, a shopkeeper in Port Talbot, received a visit from a police officer who warned him that some of the jokes he had for many years included on leaflets advertising special offers might be offensive. According to the police, he was “instructed to withdraw the leaflets”. The examples of jokes given in the newspaper were not very subtle, but only the most ridiculously sensitive person could find them offensive. In any case, it is simply not the police's job to instruct people to withdraw leaflets. I have a lot of respect for the police, but not when they act as the parish censor. If only the officer had stopped to ask himself “What about freedom of speech?”, or even, to put it in legalistic terms, “What about Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights?”. At least the article drew people's attention to the wonderful Campaign Against Political Correctness,

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Assisted suicide, respect and control

A programme on the assisted suicide of Craig Ewert at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland was broadcast tonight. The reactions of some opposed to assisted suicide were interesting.

The BBC quoted Dr Peter Saunders, director of Care Not Killing, as saying: "The danger is that we start to believe in a story that there is such a thing as a life not worth living". The BBC also quoted Lady Finlay, a professor of palliative care, as saying: "This programme ... perpetuates a myth that, somehow, to have a good death you have to end your own life and that is just completely untrue". These comments share a reluctance to accept that individuals can think clearly and make up their own minds in ways which we should respect.

Take Dr Saunders' comment first. It is obvious that there are some parts of lives that are, to the individuals concerned, not worth living, for example the last weeks of some illnesses. He clearly does not want us to believe that those parts of those lives are in fact not worth living. But if it is true, we should believe it. The only way to make it untrue is to say that the individual's judgement as to whether his or her life is worth continuing should not be accepted, because the individual must be failing to see that his or her life is worth continuing.

Lady Finlay's comment assumes that if someone chooses assisted suicide, that must be because he or she does not realise that there are other ways for him or her to have a good death. That only follows if we do not accept that someone could reasonably choose assisted suicide when there were alternative routes to a good death. But why should we not accept someone's choice of assisted suicide? There are, for some people, greater evils than immediate death, even if the deferral of death would not bring great pain. It is not for the rest of us to tell someone that his or her priorities are mistaken.

I see this theme of lack of respect for the decision of the individual as connected with a comment one sees occasionally, that some people fear debilitating illness, and will opt for suicide, because they have an exaggerated desire for control and independence. They may have a stronger than normal desire for control and independence, but why should they not? It is not for anyone else to say that someone's desire for control and independence is stronger than it should be.

While I am, as the above line of argument suggests, in favour of assisted suicide's being available, I do respect the desire of many doctors to have nothing to do with it. Indeed it could well be better for our confidence in the medical profession if doctors and nurses were statutorily excluded from involvement, rather than being allowed the choice. That should not be a problem. All that is needed is to supply a dose of the preferred substance which will definitely be strong enough, and which can be administered by the unskilled.

Finally, it is very hard to have any sympathy with the comment made by John Beyer, director of mediawatch-uk: "This subject is quite an important political issue at the moment (a Bill is being brought forard in the Scottish Parliament by Margo MacDonald MSP and there is a consultation currently running on End of Life Policies) and my anxieties are that the programme will influence public opinion". Lots of people make comments on this issue, with a view to influencing public opinion. The broadcaster has contributed to the debate by confronting us with an example of assisted suicide. All such evidence is grist to the mill of the debate. People will consider what they have seen and heard, and will make up their own minds. It really is the most appalling insult to all of us to say that we should be shielded from certain potential contributions to the debate, with the implication that we cannot stand back and think for ourselves.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Civil Service impartiality

The Damian Green affair rumbles on. This is Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, speaking on 2 December at the Civil Service Diversity and Equality Awards ceremony:

"All civil servants serve the Government of the day. We are politically impartial and our actions are governed by the Civil Service Code. Political impartiality means we must serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of our ability, no matter what are own political beliefs. To quote from the Code, this means acting 'in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future government'."

There was no official connection with the Green affair, but his decision to touch on this topic, in a context in which it looks pretty incongruous, can hardly have been a coincidence.

I find Gus O'Donnell's words disturbing. They could be read as favouring impartiality. But they could just as easily be read as favouring utter, fawning partiality, doing the bidding of ministers to the extent of protecting their reputations even when those reputations deserved to be lost, until the next election, then showing the same partiality to the new government, even though its political stance and its policies might differ radically from those of the outgoing government.

In practice, ministers' reputations are indeed looked after far too carefully by civil servants. I agree that ministers, having got themselves elected, should take policy decisions. But such decisions should be on their own heads, and for them to justify. While civil servants should advise on the options and implement the chosen policies to the best of their ability, the presentation and defence of those policies should be left entirely up to ministers and their political parties. And when leaks happen, ministers should not be shielded from the consequences of disclosure of the truth by their civil servants.

I would therefore favour a much tougher understanding of Civil Service impartiality. It should mean that civil servants will provide ministers with a limited service of advice and implementation, and nothing more. Impartiality should mean impartiality every day, not a mere readiness to change loyalty come the next election. Only then could we justifiably refer to Northcote and Trevelyan, and at one remove to Plato, with the implication that we were carrying on a proud tradition.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Government spin and bad logic on the arrest of Damian Green

Ministers have been busy saying that last week's raid does not indicate a police state, because it would be a police state if ministers directed investigations, and that did not happen. It is true that we would be in big trouble if ministers directed investigations, and it may be true that there was no ministerial involvement in this case. But it does not follow that the UK is at no risk of becoming a police state. The official line is an attempt to slip bad logic past us, in the form of denying the antecedent. There are other ways in which we could slide into a police state.

One way, directly relevant to this case, is to allow the police wide discretion which can all too easily be abused so that police officers can act against things which they happen not to like. The "misconduct in a public office" offences are like that. So is section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which has been used to punish people selling shirts which said "Bollocks to Blair" and to threaten with prosecution people holding up placards saying "Scientology is a Cult" outside the City of London headquarters of the Scientologists. The police can take control and act improperly when they are too little controlled by the law, as well as when they are too much controlled by ministers.

Friday, 28 November 2008

The arrest of Damian Green

Today we read of the arrest of Damian Green, an opposition politician, on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office. The alleged misconduct appears to be the leaking of Home Office documents connected with immigration and other matters.

There is as yet no sign that any of the leaks imperilled national security, and every sign that they were merely intensely embarrassing to the Government. If a civil servant did leak them, that civil servant would have been in breach of his duty, although he might not have committed misconduct in a public office because there is a public interest defence to that offence.

We will have to wait for more information on what was involved in this case. But as things look at the moment, it does make a very strong case for changing the rules so that all Government documents are made publicly available when that would not give the game away to criminals or terrorists. (I am against publicising methods used by the armed forces, the security services and the police, or how our weapons work, or the names of our spies.) There was nothing wrong with the documents already mentioned by the press coming into the public domain. Any civil servant who leaks such material, and any MP or journalist who publicises it, should not be prosecuted for anything at all. We need to be defended against the folly and abuse to which all governments are prone, and there can be no surer defence than our being able to see what they are up to. Plato had some funny ideas about government, but in saying that the guardians should go about their business in a way that was open to all to inspect, and in the interests of all, he was absolutely right (Republic, 416-420).

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Anonymous officials

Every now and then, we hear that a Government spokesman said something, or that an official did something or other. The civil servants in question are hardly ever named. When internal papers are released, for example the papers on tax changes made in 1997 which affected pension funds, the names of the civil servants are blotted out. We see the same sort of thing at a local level, when we hear that "a police officer" or "a social worker" did something or other.

One justification for this anonymity is that ministers, who are very public figures, are the ones who are responsible to Parliament for what happens in their departments and for the decisions taken by the Government. But that is a pretty thin justification now that ministers do not resign when their departments blunder. They do not really take responsibility.

I propose that the press should do away with this polite anonymity. It should not be "A Ministry of Defence spokesman said that equipping our troops properly was a priority" but "Fred Smith, a Ministry of Defence spokesman, said that ...". Fred might not be happy about this. He might say that he was only a mouthpiece, repeating what he had been told to say. That would be true, but if his name was out there, he might be more reluctant to put out waffle behind which the big chiefs could hide. They might be forced by their own spokesmen to be straight with us. That would be a good thing.

Likewise, if it was not "a police officer" or "a social worker", but a named individual, the thought in the mind of each such person that he or she would become known as the person responsible might encourage him or her to act with common sense. Most such people act with common sense anyway, and we should be proud of them. But a few get it so badly wrong that they must have a very odd view of the world, and we should know who they are. We pay their wages.

Likewise, enquiries into mistakes should name those responsible. The Poynter report on HM Revenue & Customs' loss of data discs related to child benefit referred to official A, official B and so on. Perhaps it had to be so in order to get the officials to co-operate. But it should not have been so. A, B and C are real people, some of whom goofed.

Finally, I can see no reason why the public at large should not be told the names of officials working on each policy development project. Sometimes one or two names are revealed, usually as contact points for consultation document responses. But if people whose wages we are forced to pay run policy development exercises which go nowhere, or which go in odd directions, we should know who they are.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Sex in public

As a couple in Dubai get sentenced for getting a bit frisky on a beach, the Association of Chief Police Officers in the UK is in the news because one of its members is working on guidelines for the policing of public sex in the UK. The story is here.

It looks as though the police approach is perfectly sensible. Their job is to enforce the law as it is, not to moralise or to enforce some other law which does not yet exist. If the BBC report is accurate, the guidelines include reasonable ideas on how to enforce the law in an efficient but sensitive manner.

Bizarrely, Dominic Grieve, Shadow Home Secretary, is quoted as saying that the ideas are unacceptable (in the BBC story, link above), while here he is arguing that it is unacceptable for local authorities to snoop on us. Dear Dominic, do you want the authorities interfering in our lives to enforce all of their petty rules, or not?

Sadly, one option does not appear to be under widespread discussion. This would be to change the law so that sex in public was always allowed, and was not a matter for police action. Obviously public nudity would need to be made fully legal, and not subject to charges of outraging public decency, breach of the peace or anything else, at the same time.

We have after all come a long way in enhancing freedom to be expressive in public over the past century, and the world has not fallen apart. We can look at extremely repressive societies like that in Saudi Arabia and laugh, at least when we are not crying at the savage oppression of the female half of the population. Perhaps in a few decades, people will look back at us and laugh, for the same reason.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Fudging evolution

Michael Reiss, Director of Education at the Royal Society, recommends giving space to creationism and intelligent design in science lessons, here.

He does not suggest that such theories might be correct, nor that they should be put on a par with evolution. His point seems to be that those who come to the subject with such views need to have those views respected, otherwise they will be unreceptive.

As a matter of educational psychology, he may have a point. But this must not detract from the fact that evolution has trumped the alternatives as comprehensively as round-earthism has trumped flat-earthism. Should we respect the views of a student who brings a flat-earth view to a geography lesson?

I fear a deplorable fudge. Reiss suggests seeing creationism “not as a misconception but as a world view”. But creationism and intelligent design are mere hand-waving which contribute absolutely nothing to our understanding of life-forms. We must face the need to say to some students “If your religion leads you to reject evolution, then there is something deeply wrong with your religion. It does not merely make a factual mistake on this point. It also encourages a wilful disregard of evidence”. To fail to say that to the student would be to evade the central issue.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

A Bill of Rights for the UK?

A joint Parliamentary Committee has just published a report proposing a UK Bill of Rights. The report is available here, and the evidence here.

Parts of the report are steps in the right direction, and some good points are made. Sadly, some of the proposals are weak. The need to balance rights, the scope to limit rights to the extent that such limits can be "demonstrably justified in a society based on the values of liberty, democracy, fairness, civic duty and the rule of law", and the scope for express Parliamentary override, would for example give just as much scope for the right of freedom of expression to be cut down as is given by the corresponding Article 10 of the European Convention, available here. We would still be a long way from the plain and noble words of the US First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances".

The inclusion in the proposal of social and economic rights such as the right to housing, education and healthcare is just a muddle-headed example of the positive liberty which Isaiah Berlin rightly identified as a step on the road to tyranny. Such things are important, but they are not a matter of liberty. Astonishingly, Berlin is not mentioned at all in the report, and is only mentioned once in the evidence (on the page numbered Ev 126), and then only in passing. Locke and Mill also get a single mention each, in the same place. I conclude that the authors of the report paid little heed to the history of the idea of liberty, which is unfortunate because a recognition of that history would have stiffened the backbone of the report considerably. One can only hope that lively debate will lead to a plan of action which will be a considerable improvement on the report.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Art and philosophy

The Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin has, until 10 August, an exhibition by Anna and Bernhard Blume called Reine Vernunft. It consists of photographs of people trapped in geometrical structures of wood, representing the subject trapped in space. There is an example here and another one here. It would be difficult to find an exact isomorphism between the contents of the pictures and the contents of Kant’s philosophy of space. Some odd bit of one or the other would stick out somewhere. But that does not matter. The exhibition is fun.

I like the idea that such exhibitions can be more than fun. There is a sense in which a work of art can embody a philosophy, perhaps something which cannot be said but which can only be shown. Such a work would not be recognised as a work of philosophy in a university. One needs words for the sake of univocality, certainly for cross-cultural univocality, and to facilitate engagement in debate. But a work of art can prompt the response appropriate to good philosophies of the human condition, the response “Yes, that is how it is”.

Berlin is the place for such works. The best summary I know of the absurdities of life is in the Gemäldegalerie. It is Die niederländischen Sprichwörter by the elder Breugel, which can be seen here. It shows people doing literally all the silly things we have turned into proverbs (pearls before swine and the like), but which we sometimes do all too close to literally ourselves.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Philosophy, science and excitement

In a pub a few days ago, I made a bold claim (as one does). We were discussing the differences between philosophy and the natural sciences. I ventured that the method of working of most academic science was not that different from the method of working of most academic philosophy. People seek to establish small, well-defined results through a painstaking examination of the evidence. The difference is that in philosophy, the evidence is not so well-defined, nor so independent of the experimenters, as in the natural sciences. Evidence in philosophy consists largely of our pre-theoretical intuitions, and of our reflections on hypothetical cases which are designed to elicit those intuitions or to put them under pressure. We are therefore neither surprised nor distressed when different philosophers hold contradictory views, and we do not assume, although we may hope, that decisive experiments to resolve such contradictions are just around the corner.

If minute and painstaking work in philosophy does not produce the goods in the way that it does in the natural sciences, should we carry on doing philosophy in this way? Might we not be better off with grand and radical philosophies? Excited though I am by the prospect of living to see the next Descartes or Nietzsche, I think we should keep the minute work going. One cannot first resolve to produce something radical, and then produce it. One has to have something worthwhile to say first. And the minute work provides a reality check, by threatening the swift demolition of castles in the air through exposure of contradictions in their foundations. Having said that, rather more bold claims in print, clearly proclaimed rather than as one often finds having to be inferred from a criss-cross reading of the text, would be stimulating.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Museums and politics

In the British Museum this afternoon, I came across an exhibition of Mao badges, all nicely polished up. The Museum chose to be neutral on the historical context, saying neither good things nor bad things about Mao. But he was one of the most foul and murderous dictators of all time, right up there with Stalin and Hitler. It would be hard for a museum to stage a similar exhibition about either of those two without providing a bit of context.

This set me wondering about the responsibilities of museums, especially in the light of last year's exhibitions on the slave trade, which did not give much prominence to the large-scale trade that had gone on within Africa for hundreds of years. And there was an exhibition on Soviet and Fascist art and architecture of the 1930s and 1940s at the Hayward Gallery and then in Barcelona and Berlin in 1995-96, under the title "Art and Power", which Time Out chose to describe as "pernicious".

I would not want to drag museums into politics, but nor would I exclude them from politics. Perhaps museums should simply encourage people more directly to go and find out about the historical context for themselves. After all, the Internet makes that easy enough. Any one site may not be authoritative, but it is easy to find a wide range of conflicting views. There is a lot to be said for articulate debate and disagreement. Apart from anything else, it is a great antidote to conformist political correctness.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Tai Chi and reality

This afternoon I went to a talk by a Tai Chi teacher. It was billed as philosophical, but it was not philosophical in any western sense, nor even in many of the eastern senses. The teacher’s central claim was that there was something beyond plus and minus, beyond yin and yang, which he had discovered. He did not say, but I think he was implying, that we could discover it too.

I do not accept his claim, or at least I do not feel inclined to search for this thing myself. If this thing beyond is a state of the person (and I am deliberately not saying whether we should break that down into a state or mind and/or a state of body), its realisation will be in the form of a disposition of molecules and the route to it will be some form of conduct, whether actions or inaction. That much, we can leave to the scientists to explain. If we are asked to see it in non-scientific terms as part of the route to it, that is just practical psychology. If we are asked to see it in non-scientific terms because that is the best way in which its nature can be conveyed, that is not problematic either. When we are invited to picture elementary particles and their interactions in a given way, we are invited to think of them in a way which does not correspond very closely to the way they actually are, but that does not matter.

Can we go further? Could this thing beyond be a reality that was beyond the reach of science? The teacher obviously thought that it was. In a discussion afterwards, someone asked me whether I rejected the claims made because they were not scientific. I saw that my criticism should not be put in those terms. I am happy to say that the beauty of a Mozart symphony is real, meaning the beauty itself, not the brain states which hearing the symphony induces, even though the beauty as such is not the sort of thing in which scientists would traffic. My criticism is that the thing of which the teacher spoke could not have even that sort of reality. The beauty of a work of art depends on its having a certain articulation. That of which the teacher spoke was without form, and void.

That leaves the reality of myth. The characters and other elements in myths, including many religions, are real for the believer. But I do not think that the teacher could lay claim to that kind of reality for the thing about which he spoke. The reason is that he started by describing, or failing to describe, the thing directly. Myths start as stories, characters in a world. Only in later generations do we analyse them and explain what they are really about. A story cannot have the real presence of a myth if it was deliberately constructed from the beginning as a way to give substance to something of uncertain status, or at least it cannot have that real presence for anyone who is aware that it was constructed for that purpose. A decoded myth is no longer a myth, but a metaphor.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Rowan Williams and Shariah law

The Archbishop of Canterbury has opened up a debate on a possible place for Shariah law within, or alongside, British law. There are two separate questions. First, what are the arguments for and against having different legal systems within the same country? Second, what should we think of the particular example of Shariah law, given its nature?

On the first question, it strikes me that there is a lot of merit in having a single system, applicable to everyone. Within it, one can have different systems of arbitration which people involved in, for example, a commercial dispute can choose. Indeed, that happens now. Most commercial disputes that get as far as a formal hearing before an independent party are settled by arbitration, rather than by the courts. But commercial disputes have the important feature that they do not necessarily involve our deepest values or feelings. Resolving a commercial dispute can be like solving any other technical problem. In that respect, they are unlike disputes which fall within the area of family law. It would be very dangerous to extrapolate from the success of commercial arbitration to other areas. In particular, once the passions are stirred, the processes of choosing, and accepting as appropriate, an arbitrator with a particular way of approaching disputes, take on a new colour. It is much less obvious that all parties will be genuinely free in making their choice. And once children are involved, we cannot think of them as choosing or accepting a given arbitration process. We can easily think that a given process would be appropriate, by identifying a child as Christian, Muslim or whatever. But children have not on the whole made free and informed choices of religion. In truth, there is no such thing as a Christian or a Muslim child, only a child of Christian or Muslim parents. So I would confine arbitration which can bind the parties to cases where the issues are financial, rather than being issues of life and love. Of course there is a role for non-binding arbitration practically everywhere in the area of civil, as opposed to criminal, law. It shades into friendly advice. If we were not able to resolve most of the issues between us by discussion and compromise but always litigated, society would grind to a halt.

Turning to Shariah law in particular, there are areas where we have already made accommodations, in particular tweaks to the tax system to handle transactions that are in substance payments of interest but in form something else. Those tweaks strike me as harmless. The transactions might well be chosen by non-Muslims, because of the ways in which they distribute risk. Equally, the tax system is tweaked to accommodate securitisations and various types of derivative. Again, we are in the emotionally boring world of commerce.

The proposal is of course to go further, and in particular to move to family relationships. Here there is an enormous danger, which runs very deep. The Islamic tradition is to accord separate roles to men and women - as is the Christian tradition, to some extent. This is a disastrous starting point. You can accord all sorts of rights and honour to women, but if you identify them as a separate group from men, the rot has already set in. The racial segregationists of the southern United States relied on the doctrine of "separate but equal", which meant nothing of the sort. We must join the Muslim women of Ontario who saw off the threat of Shariah there and set ourselves firmly against any role for Shariah law in resolving disputes that involve personal relationships. The problem is not that all of the doctrines of Shariah law are wrong. As in any legal system, some are good and some are bad - although Shariah does have an ample share of bad doctrines. The problem is that the starting point, the basic vision of society as comprising two separate groups with different roles, is totally antithetical to the individual liberty of all people and to equal opportunity for all people to shape our society.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

The squaddie's gasper

Matthew Parris, writing in today's Times, has an anecdote about a soldier waiting for a train, having to enjoy his cigarette in the rain because it is now against UK law to smoke in a public space that is under cover. My immediate reaction was that this was not right for a guy who might be on his way to be shot at in Afghanistan.

On the one hand, we expect laws to apply to everyone, or at least for any exemptions to be based on obviously relevant facts - as when police drivers can break the speed limit in an emergency. Being a soldier is not in itself enough to exempt you from a law on smoking in public places. On the other hand, I would want to let the soldier enjoy his smoke wherever was most comfortable for him.

Is there a compromise available here? We could have exceptionless rules, but then have enforcers of rules who exercised common sense. It would be a risky approach, because you could not instruct the enforcers as to what exceptions to allow. That would amount to legislating the exceptions. It would also be risky because enforcers could start to exercise their personal preferences, either as to classes of people to let off or as to specific individuals to let off. We could soon slide into the rule of men, rather than the rule of law. But perhaps we should tolerate that to a limited extent, in trivial matters like the occasional cigarette. I fear that we are losing such flexibility. A "rules is rules" attitude is nothing new, but it is now encouraged from the centre with standards, guidelines, targets and boxes to tick.