Monday, December 24, 2007

Encroaching regulation in Britain

Canada has Mark Steyn, America has Ann Coulter -- writers who use comedic exaggeration as a powerful way of making serious points. Their British equivalent is Jeremy Clarkson. A sample below:

WHILE away last week, someone came in the night and put up a couple of hand-made road signs on the grass verge outside my house. They advertise a new website that encourages road users to report fellow citizens for dangerous or antisocial driving. I think it may be called The idea is simple. If you are annoyed by someone's driving, you simply post the numberplate and a brief description of the crime in the hope the offender will log on and be so ashamed he or she will turn over a new leaf and become a vicar.

For example, a chap with the username StephenHarrison, who has made 157 posts so far, quotes the numberplate of a car that, he claims, positioned itself in the left/straight-on lane, then turned right at the roundabout in Birmingham city centre on July 9. And Kev627 tells us that in Hampshire, a man driving a Ford Fiesta indicated about 100m before the exit prior to the one he used to leave the A342.

I'm surprised to find someone in Glasgow didn't tell members that he had seen two Muslim men drive right over the pavement and into the terminal at the city's airport in a burning Jeep Cherokee.

Sadly, I don't know if I appear because I don't know my numberplate. But I do know that we are talking about the dullest site in the entire web, and also the most terrifying.

The problem is that we now have so many laws in Britain and so few police officers to enforce them all, that the slack is being taken up by an army of bitter and twisted busybodies in beige clothes and upper lips puckered so badly by rage they look like one of Mr Kipling's cakes. Think about it. When we were growing up it was illegal to murder someone, and er ... that's it. Now it is illegal to eat an apple while driving or use a mobile phone. It is illegal to smoke a cigarette in a bus shelter or use more than two dogs to kill a fox.

To enforce all these new laws is a police force of 140,000, most of whom do four days a week of ladder training and one day a week arresting doctors for attempting to explode. To get around the problem, the British Government has introduced new tiers of policing, such as speed cameras and Highways Agency teams on motorways in chequerboard 4x4s, which look like police vehicles and have "traffic officer" emblazoned in the back window, but their main job is to clear up the mess after an accident. Which means, technically, they are Wombles.

Then you have community support officers, who have few powers and are really nothing more than neighbourhood-watch wardens in hi-viz jackets. If they see a Brazilian fox eating an apple in a bus shelter they must call for a proper police officer, who can't get there because it's night time and the station is shut, or because he hasn't had any fox training or because he's otherwise engaged on the top deck of a bus arresting a doctor for having a backpack full of baking powder and hair gel.

The fact is the British Government is churning out the laws and the only way they can be enforced is if ordinary people start shopping their fellow citizens. How long will it be before we will confide only in our oldest friends, and then only in a whisper, in case an agent of the state is listening? Today we are being reported for indicating a bit too early in our Ford Fiesta. Tomorrow, when they get around to making climate change scepticism a crime, and they will, the equivalent of StephenHarrison and Kev627 will shop you for leaving your TV on stand-by.

It all flies in the face of what I learned at school: you never shop anyone to the teachers. And it's all the wrong way around. Instead of setting up websites where people are exposed for breaking laws that shouldn't exist, I suggest we set one up that reveals the names and addresses of those who call for such laws to be imposed in the first place. I even have a name for such a thing:

In the meantime, though, I must thank the people who put up the signs outside my house. On these chilly summer evenings they came in very handy. As firewood.


The British scene: Don't drink if you want to be merry

With undercover cops spying on pub staff, and everyone else conforming to official wisdom on 'binge-drinking', Xmas boozing might be a rather flat affair.

When you're sipping a festive pint in your cosy local this Christmas, beware the figure lurking behind you, strangely interested in your trips to the bar. In Blackpool, England, recently, police piloted a scheme where undercover officers spied on patrons and bar staff. The underwhelming result of this dragnet was that two bar staff were fined for serving drunk customers. Now it looks like this scheme could be heading to a boozer near you (1). But it's not just the forces of law and order watching our behaviour that we should be concerned about - it's the little puritan voice inside our heads, as scripted by health campaigners and moral guardians.

The plainclothes surveillance scheme in Blackpool is one of a recent barrage of initiatives and commentary aimed at Britain's apparently frenzied and deadly alcohol consumption. The campaign on drink driving isn't just for Christmas anymore, it's for life. Other government-funded adverts remind us that while we may feel superhuman after a drink or two, that's precisely when we're more likely to have an accident. Then there's the constant advice to count the number of units you consume (as if you could count after a session).

The media draw daily on Dantesque visions of our streets as `the playgrounds of puking post-adolescents' (2) where `weekend droves pile into chain pubs and the police have been known to set up mobile holding rooms' (3). While `confessions of a middle-class binge drinker' columns sniggered at recent panics about `respectable' home drinking, the drive for behaviour modification has continued apace. Even the homely Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) now defines pubs as `the proper place to enjoy a drink in a responsible and regulated atmosphere' (4).

The attack on our drinking habits is part of a wider process in which the political class and lifestyle authoritarians, lacking any grander vision of the world, turn the banal facts of existence - like the things we consume for sustenance and pleasure - into morally charged issues because they have little to offer us in any other sphere. And whether they are haranguing us about public behaviour or private habits, the space they really want to colonise is inside our heads: our guilty consciences.

This potent cocktail of conformity is two parts misanthropy to one part health neurosis. When we swallow this mix - apologising for that next glass, fretting about another cigarette or worrying about the letch at the Christmas party - we are doing the puritans' work for them. As Dolan Cummings argued in a recent essay, when smokers say they welcome the ban on public smoking because it will help them quit, they `express a peculiar sort of resolution: one which they claim to be incapable of exercising without external compulsion. By banning smoking in pubs, we collectively save ourselves from temptation.' (5)

An Australian business venture provides a startling illustration of this increasing rejection of personal responsibility. In 2004, Virgin Mobile responded to an apparent Aussie epidemic of embarrassing drunken calls to exes and colleagues. Their service allowed customers, before drinking, to dial `333' followed by the number they wanted to avoid `drunk dialling'. For 25 cents, attempts to phone blacklisted numbers initiate a message: `This call cannot be connected; this is for your own good.' Psychologist John McIlroy believed `it could come in handy for Americans who know themselves well enough to not have self-control over their impulses' (6).

This version of the human subject as incapable of personal restraint leads to obsessive use of the term `binge' in alcohol coverage. The hysterical portrayal of bingeing also exposes the root of anti-alcohol culture: a fear of human agency and by implication humanity itself.

Alcohol becomes the locus for behaviour politics because it removes inhibitions, acting as social glue. Drink can make us feel fearless, free or profound. At the right pitch of tipsiness, alcohol exaggerates our great qualities; we're perhaps more animated, articulate or communicative. Whether that's about anything of substance is another matter. Alcohol can also magnify morbidity or aggression, it is true, but current policy is founded on the assumption that these murkier qualities will emerge in the first sip of a pint. The assumption is that everyone needs some kind of rules and regulation because we can all suddenly `get out of hand' (7).

The heightened sense of freedom alcohol provides is precisely why it's troubling - and the pleasure it provides so baffling - to increasing numbers of official killjoys. Current `drink responsibly' public information films betray fears that the demon drink will unleash the violent, vile core lurking beneath the thin veneer of polite social intercourse. The evolution of attitudes to smoking from a private matter to a public scourge reveals how potent the desire to control our conduct has become. Below I have listed what I consider to be key rhetorical stages in the journey from liberty to prohibition - best illustrated by the bans on public smoking but increasingly defining the discussion of alcohol, too:

Availability phase: availability is problematic, with the suggestion that we're bombarded with advertising seducing us to rabidly consume cut-price crates. Youth, it is said, are hit hardest.

Health/crime phase: consumption, we are told, leads to ill-health or criminality. The proper priorities are to extend your life and to relieve your financial burden on the state, showing you're a morally worthy individual by demonstrating health preoccupations. Because disease/crime can result from consumption, such behaviour is therefore inherently bad. Redefining previously acceptable consumption as `abuse' or `addiction' is key.

Anti-social phase: consumption is discussed as anti-social, displaying offensive disregard for sacred environmental and psychological concerns; it pollutes air and relationships. This phase overlaps with the health/crime phase because `the government is redefining "the social" to mean an area where people cause a costly amount of damage (either fiscal or environmental) that the government has to mop up' (8).

Misanthropic momentum phase: warnings are issued that control-measures only go part of the way to addressing much deeper problems that require further bans/legislation/education, particularly surrounding people's ability to parent.

Common sense phase: in the run-up to a ban, and in the period after, the defining outlook is silent compliance. To argue that the ban is an infringement on freedom is to challenge the health position, and is therefore an affront to common sense and `The Science'.

For those who don't believe that restrictions on public intoxication are likely, it should be noted that drunkenness in public is already illegal in many US states. Serving an intoxicated patron has been illegal in Australia since 1998. The increasingly aggressive implementation of intoxication law in these countries serves as sobering examples of how the campaign against drunkenness could play out in Britain.

In Virginia, during Christmas 2003, local police launched a sting on 20 neighbourhood bars and restaurants to `apprehend "drunk" patrons before they try to drive'. Officials said evidence could have been based on `unflicked cigarette ashes, an excessive number of restroom visits, noisy cursing, or a wobbly walk'. Police in Dallas have performed similar sting operations on the publicly legless. In 2006, agents entered 36 bars and arrested 30 people for public intoxication (9). In August 2007, San Diego City Council banned alcohol on all city beaches and parks for a year trial period.

An essay by American sociologist William Sumner, written in 1883, throws light on the deadening logic of behaviour manipulation policy. In the essay, entitled `On the Case of a Certain Man Who Is Never Thought Of', Sumner notes: `The fallacy of all prohibitory, sumptuary, and moral legislation is the same. A and B determine to be teetotallers, which is often a wise determination, and sometimes a necessary one. If A and B are moved by considerations which seem to them good, that is enough. But A and B put their heads together to get a law passed which shall force C to be a teetotaller for the sake of D, who is in danger of drinking too much. There is no pressure on A and B. They are having their own way, and they like it. There is rarely any pressure on D. He does not like it, and evades it. The pressure all comes on C. The question then arises: who is C? He is the man who wants alcoholic liquors for any honest purpose whatsoever, who would use his liberty without abusing it. He is the Forgotten Man again. what each one of us ought to be.' (10)

The public tap on the back from bar-room spies is overtly Orwellian, yet it's the internal spying we really have to watch: measuring yourself against `concerning' statistics; suddenly reassessing intake; seeing others as vulnerable. So, for example, daft drunken antics are now reframed as potentially psychologically damaging. This is why staff Christmas parties were vetoed by nine out of 10 employers last year over fears they could lead to tribunal claims. A survey of 4,915 companies showed most managers fear that employees may behave inappropriately and drink too much alcohol at the office party. The striking majority of respondents (86 per cent) said they'd received complaints from staff due to a Christmas party incident (11).

The new prohibition project - whether it relates to smoking, drinking, or interpersonal office relationships - relies on making us internalise ever-restricted norms of what is `healthy' and `dangerous' activity. We could ignore the momentum of behaviour politics and adopt the state's dim view of us: as forever in need of protection from ourselves and each other. It would be better, however, to forget what our indiscretions might cost the National Health Service and remember the social cost of perceiving everyday freedoms and interactions as little more than potential occasions for harm.


Britain: Asylum-seekers from Congo face deportation

Britain won't ACTUALLY deport them, of course. They will just sit around being a drain on the taxpayer. That's British logic for you. Even being a criminal is not usually enough to get you deported from Britain -- in that respect rather like the USA

Thousands of failed asylum-seekers face forced removal to the volatile Democratic Republic of Congo, where they say they face rape, torture and even death, after a landmark immigration ruling. The hopes of Congolese asylum-seekers whose cases have been refused rested with one woman, known only as "BK". After a judicial review this year, it was decided that all removals would be put on hold until a ruling was made in her case. With BK's appeal dismissed on the grounds of insubstantial evidence, all those who fled the country's regime are now at risk of being returned.

Immigration experts belive there are 10,000 failed DRC asylum-seekers in the UK, although some think the figure may be as high as several hundred thousand. A two-year moratorium on removals to Zimbabwe ended last month after it was ruled that failed asylum-seekers would not necessarily face persecution on their return.

The DRC is widely acknowledged to be plagued by human rights abuses, and campaigners say returned asylum-seekers become prime targets on arrival because they are seen as traitors.


1 comment:

Paul Garrard said...

Jeremy Clarkson is a National treasure and star of a very popular telly programme. But you don't take him too seriously. He is a very funny man and most entertaining.