Lawless Britain: enough already with the law-making

by Stephen Tall on August 3, 2005

Treating The Sun seriously is always a mistake, of course. One should just swat aside its casually xenophobic, sexist, homophobic utterings with as little thought or effort as one would spare for flicking away a fly, or as the Australians will need to retain the Ashes. It’s just not worth it.

And yet, and yet… Today’s Currant Bun (as nobody calls it) splashed on that stock silly season stand-by: ‘Lawless Britain’, screamed the headline. For those of you who did not purchase a copy – for I realise, dear reader, that you are of far too gentle a disposition to allow the nation’s favourite news-comic to pass your portals – let me quote the opening paragraph, which perhaps will hint at the flavour:

“Britain has plunged into chaos as an unprecedented wave of terrorism coincides with shocking street violence and a host of other pressing problems. Yet at a time when a raft of new laws has rarely been needed more, what are our political leaders and MPs doing? Swanning off on holiday as the House of Commons takes an EIGHTY-DAY break.”

Uncontrolled immigration, antisocial kids, extremist clerics, vile paedophiles… all these and many more delights are outside your house right now, just waiting to pounce and unleash their evil in your general direction. (You did remember to lock your door when you arrived home this evening, didn’t you? The chain and latch are both on, aren’t they? And the children are shut away in their rooms, out of harm’s way? Good, then we can relax – but only for a moment! – and continue.)

The litany of lawlessness is so wretchedly clichéd (as is the tabloid-speak article: I can only assume the paper’s editrix is away) it could almost have been copied word-for-word from the last Tory election manifesto. This, though, is not an article about the tabloid press’s fetishisation of law ‘n’ order. Nor is this the place to point out that recorded crime in Britain fell by 39 per cent between 1995 and 2004; nor that the risk of being a victim of crime fell from 40 to 26 per cent over the same period. But this is the time – rarely has it been a better time, especially if you’re Brazilian – to question the motives of those who sell fear to justify the erosion of our freedoms. As Benjamin Franklin noted, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”

Yet The Sun’s thesis strays beyond the confines of its usual “lock up the foreigners, Gippos and gayers” rant. Indeed, for a right-wing Thatcherite rag which argues for less state interference, today’s article showed a quite touching faith in the power of government to act as a force for good. It appears that all which stands between this nation and Armageddon is the massed ranks of our sojourning MPs:

“They leave behind security services battling to track down al-Qaeda fanatics still at large. And they leave behind police officers trying to bring axe murderers and knife maniacs to justice.”

Call me a lily-livered, pinko liberal if you must, but it reassures me some to know our Parliamentarians aren’t attempting – in some mob-handed, cack-handed fashion – to hunt down fanatics, murderers and maniacs. Imagine: your life in the hands of John Prescott, Boris Johnson or Lembit Opik…

But The Sun is by no means a lone voice in the media embrace of Big Government, though their rhetoric is the most self-consciously uppity. The BBC Today programme revels in giving authority a hard time, which is only sort of fair enough. “So when is the Government going to act to stop/start/improve this/that/the other?” demands John Humphreys, and our politicians cower, promising legislation to outlaw/introduce/promote this/that/the other will be on the statute book faster than you can say Newsnight. Just once it would be nice (or at least honest, which isn’t quite the same thing) to hear a government minister bat Mr Humphreys’ question straight back:

“Nothing. We’re doing what we can, and aim to get better at it. This country has enough laws already that try and stop people being nasty to each other. We don’t need any more. The only reason for bringing in another law is that a little bit of legislative displacement therapy will get me off the hook in this interview.”

But that day is, I suspect, some way off. Edmund Burke famously wrote, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Now I don’t suppose he had The Sun or Today programme in mind at the time. But too often our politicians treat – and are expected by the media and public to treat – legislative industry as a substitute for considered judgment.

As a society we need to break this symbiotic circle: if the media and public acted a little more maturely, our politicians might respond with wise honesty. To appreciate fully the potentiality of power, we must first understand its constraints. And a good first step is making sure our MPs steer clear of the House of Commons for at least the next 80 days. They’ve earned a break from their law-making. More to the point, so have we.