Tuesday, 23 March 2010

A Britain where nobody wants to live

Circulating the libertarian blogosphere at the moment is a superb speech by Ivan Lawrence from 22 March 1979, in the debate on the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill:
I am wholly in favour of seat belts, of encouraging people to wear them, and of insurance companies and courts applying sanctions to encourage their use, but I am against the Bill because it abuses the criminal law and the criminal process. Why should any citizen be forced by criminal sanction to wear something which could in some circumstances kill him? That has never been a legitimate principle of our criminal law. Why should anyone be forced by criminal sanction not to hurt himself? That was never, at least until the crash helmet legislation, a principle of our criminal law. Where will it end? Why make driving without a seat belt a crime because it could save a thousand lives, when we could stop cigarette smoking by the criminal law and save 20,000 lives a year? Why not stop by making it criminal the drinking of alcohol, which would save hundreds of thousands of lives?

When will we realise that laws not only cannot cure every evil but are frequently counter-productive? Here the harm done to our criminal process may well exceed any good that the law can do. We can see that in advance, so why do we persist with it? If there was a law which made it a criminal offence to smoke or to drink alcohol, neither of which, of course, do I advocate, just think of the amount of bereavement that would be saved, the number of hospital beds that could be put to better use, and the time and energy of our doctors and nurses which could be more usefully employed. Yet we do not consider doing that. What is it about the motorist that requires him to be singled out and subjected to this sort of legislation?
The harm to justice caused by this legislation will be far more substantial than we think. When will we realise that every little infringement of liberty, for whatever good cause, diminishes the whole concept of liberty? If life is the only criterion, why did we sacrifice so many millions of lives in two world wars? Why did we not in the Second World War lie down and say"Because millions of people may die, we should let our liberty be taken away before the onset of the Nazis "? The answer is that more important than lives is the concept of liberty.

Since I have been in the House I have seen the cogent arguments and the telling pleas of hon. Members on both sides of the House persuading and succeeding in persuading the House that it is only a very little piece more of liberty that we are withdrawing and for such great benefits and advantages. As a result we have far fewer of our freedoms now than was ever dreamed possible a few years ago. In the end we shall find that our liberties have all but disappeared. It might be possible to save more lives in Britain by this measure—and by countless other measures. But I do not see the virtue in saving more lives by legislation which will produce in the end a Britain where nobody wants to live.
41 years on, having waged a vigorous War on Smoking, Nanny is turning her attention to alcohol. When Philip Davies (Shipley, Conservative) questioned this latest advance, Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North, Labour) replied:
It is clear that the hon. Gentleman and I come from polar opposite positions, but he is making the classic freedom speech. He is saying that we have the freedom to do what we want, without intervention from the state. The same speech will have been made against the breathalyser, crash helmets, the compulsory wearing of seat belts and a whole range of traffic regulations that are designed to save lives. Freedoms affect other people, not just the person exercising them.
Staggering. The classic freedom speech. Freedom: a quaint notion that hasn't yet been completely brushed aside. If I choose not to wear my crash helmet, and die as a result, "other people" — chiefly my wife and family — will be affected, but it is my life. I ought to consider those I love, but that is between me and them; the government has neither duty nor right to interfere.

It is not that I have any great desire to race around without a helmet. If the law were repealed tomorrow, I would continue to wear one. But it is a matter of principle: I own myself, and choose my own risks. Once this principle is lost, there is no limit to the potential encroachment of the state. Slowly, steadily, stealthily, Nanny advances. Where will it end?

Alcohol and tobacco have one significant advantage: they are a reliable source of revenue for the state. But we should not suppose that this will save our freedoms. For all its incompetence, the state is ingenious at extracting money from the electorate, and any reliance on a particular revenue stream is transitory.

The experience of alcohol prohibition in the United States did not teach the nanny statists respect for human nature and individual rights; it taught them patience and surreptitiousness. They did not give up their desire to mould an ideal human, but they recognised that it could not be achieved overnight, nor through blunt instruments. People must be gradually worn down; undesirable behaviour must be 'denormalised'.

The entire debate is worth reading. Despite Mr Davies's antiquated interest in freedom, the official Conservative position, as clarified by Anne Milton (Shadow Minister, Health; Guildford, Conservative), is supportive of an increase in the price of alcohol. They accept the principle that Nanny knows best, that the role of government is to guide the choices of its citizens; they simply disagree on the approach. Where will it end?

As Davies notes,
A great many people in the House seem to want to do nothing else but ban everyone from doing all the things that they themselves do not happen to like. I do not think that I was brought into politics for that. In fact, I am speaking today as a teetotaller: I do not even drink alcohol, but I very much defend the rights of those who do. People who want to enjoy drinking their alcohol responsibly should not have to pay extra on their supermarket shopping just because a few yobs cannot take their drink of an evening.
Like Davies, I
despair at the endless consensus that there seems to be in the House, which is forever seeking to restrict people's freedoms in this country, to try to stop them doing things that they do legitimately and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, without any problem. For hon. Members to lecture people constantly about what they may and may not do, and what they should and should not say, is depressing beyond belief.
Like him I fear that
the zealots represented on the Select Committee will be back for more, and back for more again. They are never satisfied. Dr. Taylor said that he wanted the Government to go a little further and do a little more. Unfortunately, he and the people whom he represents always want the Government to go a little further and do a little more.

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