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.

1 comment:

  1. Wo kein Kläger, da kein Richter.
    If nobody complains the trespassing individual gets away with it.
    I would not complain about the smoking soldier.