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Bad Laws. Philip Johnston. Constable. [pounds sterling]8.99. [iv] + 330 pages. ISBN 978-1-84901-010-8.

We enter into a contract with our governments. We give them an awesome power--the power to truncate our freedom. Because the power is so frightening it is, in all sensible countries, tightly circumscribed and rigorously policed. Most of us, if asked, would say that we understood something along the lines of John Stuart Mill's dictum to be a term of the contract: 'The only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will' he wrote, 'is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. ... It is important to give the freest scope possible to uncustomary things in order that it may in time appear which of these are fit to be converted into customs'. Some caveats are necessary. Laws are sometimes and legitimately enacted in order to express values. Sometimes that expression reduces individual freedom, but the reduction is an unfortunate by-product. The object of the expression is to maximise the freedom of the majority. But as a rule of thumb. Mill's dictum is not bad at all.

Recent UK governments have systematically and cynically breached this term of their contract. Philip Johnston expertly and mercilessly exposes the breaches. Messrs Blair and Brown were wildly enthusiastic legislators. We can put that another way: they enthusiastically eroded basic and ancient freedoms. They created new crimes at a rate of nearly one per day. Many laws were enacted by means of Statutory Instrument, ensuring no or no real Parliamentary scrutiny. In 1911 Acts of Parliament ran to 430 pages. In 2005 there were 2712 pages. In 1911 there were 330 pages of Statutory Instruments: in 2005, there were 11,868. Of course the society of 2005 was more complex than that of 1911, but that doesn't begin to account for the discrepancy. The real explanation is much scarier. The leaders of 1911, moustachioed patricians though they may have been, were democrats. They trusted the people. The leaders of 2005 held their subjects (for (hat is how they viewed them), in contempt. They viewed them as retarded and corrupt children. As the historian A.J.P. Taylor trenchantly observed, before the First World War the average citizen's interaction with the government was largely limited to paying lax. Now the government is everywhere: on our holidays, in our children's schools, and in our bedrooms.

Mrs Cartwright was famously locked up for breach of one of New Labour's Anti-Social Behaviour Orders when she had sex too loudly. If a 15-year-old boy consensually touches his 15-year-old girlfriend's breasts behind the bike sheds he is committing a criminal offence. A group of elderly gentlemen who met once a year in a room above an English pub to sing unaccompanied folksongs had their meeting cancelled. The landlady had been told that she would need a variation to her premises licence. Nurseries are subject to a compulsory curriculum, even though all the children there are under the age for compulsory education. Anyone working in education, health, leisure and other sectors has to register with the 'Independent Safeguarding Authority' if they have contact with children under sixteen. If you are an unlicensed Brownie leader you can face a fine of [pounds sterling]5000. Twenty percent of all the world's CCTV cameras are in the UK--that's one camera for every 12 people. A traditional Christmas Day charity swim off the Suffolk coast was cancelled because of the crippling costs of public liability insurance, police and a lifeboat--all demanded by health and safety legislation. A performance of Handel's Messiah in a Dorset church was cancelled: members of the audience, insisted the authorities, could be injured in the dark if there were a power cut. An average Londoner is caught on CCTV 300 times per day.

Are we safer and happier? Of course not. Take CCTV as an example. It has produced no or no significant reduction in crime rates, and yet in 2002 three quarters of the Home Office crime prevention budget was allocated to it. The Detective Chief Inspector of the Metropolitan Police unit in charge of the CCTV initiative in London described it as an 'utter fiasco'. Similar comments apply to many of the other liberty-abating laws. How did we let this happen? Should we blame our traditional English distaste for making a fuss? Perhaps we lend to think that our leaders know best. Whatever the reason, a lot of damage has been done. Some is irreparable. But something can be salvaged. It will need a revolution. Mr Johnston's angry, funny, cogent, swashbuckling and urgent book is its manifesto. Elect no MP or local councillor who cannot produce a well-thumbed copy.

Charles Foster is a barrister and a Fellow of Green Templeton College in the University of Oxford. His latest hook is Wired for God? The Biology of Spiritual Experience was published by Hodder this year.
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Title Annotation:Bad Laws
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2010

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