Madsen Pirie wrote the following on the Adam Smith Blog last week:
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has a real problem. Last week one of his MPs tabled a bill in Parliament to force pubs and bars to sell wine in small measures only, while one of his party’s MEPs called for a ban on patio heaters.
The result is that poor Nick Clegg has seen his party made to look stupid yet again. He needs to take a lesson from Peter Mandelson, who introduced tight controls over what initiatives individual Labour politicians might launch or pontificate about. It made him unpopular, but it made his party able to control its image. Nick Clegg will have to do something similar or risk seeing idiots and charlatans make his party a laughing stock week after week.
This being the ASI, I’m sure they don’t see the irony in calling for Clegg to ban something in the interest of not wanting to look as if he’s in favour of banning things, but actually they have a point. I’m not clear that the world will be much improved by either Hall’s or Mulholland’s proposals. The growth in patio heater demand was particularly predictable given we saw precisely this happen as soon as Ireland introduced their own smoking bans a few years ago. The law of unintended consequences is not quite the same thing as a law of unpredictable consequences. It’s horses for courses.
I happen to agree that Lib Dem MPs ought to be very, very cautious about banning things or imposing greater regulation, and to always look towards a non-statutory solution first. But with that said, I’m not convinced we’re any worse at it as a party than any other.
Take the Tories for instance. Jonathan Calder has already taken David Davis to task for his call to lock up every underage drinker he can get his mitts on. Meanwhile, at the end of this month Tory MP Julian Brazier will be seeking to get the British Board of Film Classification (Accountability to Parliament and Appeals) Bill through its second reading. BBFC, for all its faults, is an example of relatively successful self-regulation, until the Thatcher government made it a semi-QUANGO during the video nasty scare. Brazier however wants to go even further:
A Bill to make provision for parliamentary scrutiny of senior appointments to the British Board of Film Classification and of guildlines produced by it; to establish a body with powers to hear appeals against the release of videos and DVDs and the classification of works in prescribed circumstances; to make provision about penalties for the distribution of illegal works; and for connect purposes
In other words, Brazier is seeking Parliamentary powers to exert political pressure on the BBFC and effectively make it its puppet. A vice-like grip of state control over popular culture in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. Roy Jenkins must be spinning in his grave.
I’m not sure that anything any Lib Dem politician has proposed comes close to this, yet I don’t hear the ASI lecturing Cameron.
The other recent call to ban something has come from some teenagers in Corby, who have enlisted the Childrens Commissioner and Liberty in their mission to get the Mosquito banned. This is a much more difficult issue, since these devices are explicitly discriminatory against young people, yet at the same time totally indiscriminate in that they don’t distinguish between thugs and the vast majority of innocent teenagers. I’ve got enormous sympathy for the kids.
And yet… despite the fact that for any public body to use such a device would be a clear breach of the HRA in my view, I’m not sure anything much would be gained by banning it altogether. I’m not convinced we should treat this as a zero-sum game between youths and shopkeepers. I can understand why shopkeepers in some places may be at their wits’ end and resort to such measures. I can’t help but feel this is endemic of a wider social problem. Just as the Mosquitoes don’t solve anti-social behaviour as much as move it on, banning them wouldn’t tackle the underlying issue either.
It seems to me we need to take a more constructive approach, and that the solution is best left to people locally to sort out for themselves. Broadly then, much as it pains me to say it, I think the government line is the right one.
Just in case you thought I was being too nice to the government though, let’s focus on its plans to block prostitute’s telephone lines. How wrong is this? Let me count the ways:
1. Assuming it could be made to work, it would force prostitutes out onto the street and in a more dangerous environment.
2. It costs
Â£10 Â£1.99 to buy a new phone number these days in the form of a sim card. Assuming these are not summary police powers the government is proposing, they would go through costly legal procedures to ban a number, only to find the same prostitute working with a new number within a matter of hours.
3. Even if the government did give the police summary powers here and all the civil liberty implications that would entail, the prostitutes could simply switch over to email accounts.
This sounds less like a crackdown on prostitution and more like an elaborate and expensive game of cat-and-mouse.
The impulse to ban things is rooted in our desire for symbolism but even in the case of unambiguously bad things it is rarely a simple, cut and dried matter. We should always be wary of doing so – and that applies to all parties.
UPDATE: Some great background on the BBFC on Edis Bevan’s blog.