Banning things

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 £10 £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.


  1. I had to send a letter to my MP today because I’m so frustrated by this country right now on just these sorts of issues. Films and video games to be under greater government scrutiny, the workless to be thrown out, government to rule on the fates of “terrorist” suspects after the fact, government able to control inquests, government banning people from the internet, government sending the police in on under age drinking. There are even bills that are to come on banning speed camera detection devices (even though knowing that they’re there slows people down, which is the fucking POINT of the damn things, not making money) and also regulating police (I believe, need to see the bill) to clean up after car accidents faster…because it seems doing a thorough investigation after someone dies is secondary to getting cars moving again!

    I never have hated a government before but I feel like I am now…Lib Dem’s need to be very wary they don’t start falling into the trap otherwise it could be that I waste my votes in the future out of spite with an unrepresentative and power hungry system.

  2. Well, we are nominally a liberal party, so we should expect more flak when it comes to our representatives doing and saying illiberal things…

    I think it should be taken as granted that some at the ASI won’t criticise the Tories in the same way they would us for being illiberal.

    If we look to property rights for a solution to the mosquito we have a solution I think – its fine for it to be used on private property, however if it affects someone else’s property and they don’t wish it to then its pollution and should be stopped.
    If its affecting public property (as I would guess it mostly does) then it does contravene the right to freedom of assembly and add the discriminatory and blanket aspect then I’d say it is a case when the state has a duty to prevent its use.

    Where things become tricky would be in a mall. Its private property, so it could be used. However does it harm babies and young children? That gets tricky – I’d suggest a compromise of ensuring prominent display of a warning – I’m sure Mothercare and the Early Learning Centre would object to its use due to potential lost custom…

  3. I don’t think we should be taking any lessons from Dr Mad Sen. That said, James is right as usual on patio heaters.

    The Mosquito should not be banned, it should not be used by Government agencies. A subtle distinction.

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