CentreForum’s ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’ #9 – Norman Baker: a guest post by Tom Papworth

by Stephen Tall on August 3, 2012

ImageWelcome to the ninth in our series — Liberal Hero of the Week — as chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

The aim is simple enough: to showcase public figures who help promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book: economic, personal, political and social liberalism. We will be highlighting individuals regardless of their party affiliation, and indeed from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

And as a special Olympic treat for you, here’s a bonus ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’. Yes, I’m tearing up the rule-books — my official weekly choice is published here — to bring you this guest post from Tom Papworth, leader of the Lib Dem group on Bromley Council and contributor to the Liberal Vision blog, who explains his reasons here for nominating Norman Baker… All I will add, as a non-helmet-wearing cyclist both in London and Oxford, is: I agree with Norman (and Tom)

Norman Baker

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport.
Reason: for defending the freedom of cyclists to ride without a helmet if they choose.

I think anybody who rides a bike without wearing a helmet is taking an enormous risk. I’ve fallen off my bike in the past and had my helmet (rather than my head) bounce off the tarmac. I also know that cycling can be very dangerous; the chair of one the neighbouring constituency party was killed a few years back while cycling when he was hit by a car. So I am under no illusions about the importance of wearing a cycling helmet for road safety.

But a cycling helmet only protects the cyclist themself. There is no danger posed to other road users if a cyclist chooses not to wear a helmet. And liberalism is all about preventing people causing direct harm to third parties. As John Stewart Mill pointed out:

… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right…. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is of right, absolute, over himself. Over his own body-mind, the individual is sovereign.

And, one might add, over his own head.

So (ahem!) hats off to Norman Baker, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport with responsibility for cycling, who described as his “libertarian right” to cycle without a helmet on. As Norman explained:

“I don’t wear a helmet when I cycle. The first reason is that I don’t want to. I don’t want to wear something on my head. For me the joy of cycling is to have the wind in your hair, such as I have left. It’s free, it’s unencumbered; I don’t want to be loaded down. It is a libertarian argument. The responsibility is only towards myself. It’s not like drinking and driving where you can damage other people. You do no harm. I’m not encouraging people not to do this, I’m just saying I make a decision not to.”

And if I were to point to a Liberal Villain of the Week, I might point to his counterpart, Joel Hickman of Brake, who argued that:

“Last year, over 17,000 cyclists were injured on UK roads with over 2,500 killed or seriously injured. The vast majority of these deaths and serious injuries were the result of a head injury. This is precisely why many of our international and European partners have already introduced compulsory helmet wearing”.

That is paternalism, and of a particularly patronising kind. Does Mr Hickman not think that 17,00 injuries including 2,500 KSIs is enough information of which mature citizens can make their own decisions?

I way well done Norman. You cycle helmetless – and on your own head be it. Or not.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here.