Sorry for the short time away, regular readers. I got thrown off by a nasty chest infection but I’m back now and it’s time to open up Simon Jenkins’ latest CiF piece:
The toughest lesson to draw from the Whitehaven tragedy is that there might be no lesson at all. We cannot stop people having rows at home or work, taking leave of their senses, finding a gun and going berserk. Such things rarely happen. But even the most authoritarian state must allow some personal liberty, and everyone accepts the resulting risk. No free community can be wholly safe without losing its freedom.
And this is at the entire core of what’s not working in society right now, isn’t it? A zero-sum game has been forced up into cabinet decision-making about the prevention of risk, about ‘safeguarding’ those who can’t be safeguarded, about ‘protecting’ everyone by throwing the civil liberties of everyone away. What’s brilliant about Jenkins’ article is that he takes issue with the concept itself. You can’t protect children by presuming every adult is a paedophile, it’s just absurd. You can’t protect every politician by presuming every voter is a terrorist, and demonising the exceptions to the rule only teaches society that there are easy answers to be had where there may be no answers at all. He goes on:
When the bossy Labour minister Ed Balls banned pictures of children in schools and vetted parents for sex crimes, the bounds of public sanity were strained. Yet no one stopped him. People muttered, “Well, you can’t be too safe.”
On every First Great Western train, an announcement is made after each stop telling passengers to look about for suspicious people or parcels and report them immediately to the police. It makes for a miserable journey. If you enter a government building, you are told that the current alert status means an imminent terrorist attack is “highly likely”. This serves no purpose but to frighten people into conceding the Home Office ever more power.
Yup entirely right, and this is what’s important to remember. New Labour wasn’t alone in creating the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). This belief that a super bureaucracy could possibly vet and safeguard every (any?) credible threat to children’s safety didn’t only originate with super-authoritarian Balls – he just went along with it. Did the rest of parliament stop the ISA in its tracks? Not at all. Has the media really had the balls to question the social damage that it’s continuing (under Nick Clegg’s new socially liberal era) to inflict? Not at all. We decided, and government decided it was in its interests to accept, that we wanted to prevent any sort of risk at all, and contracted out the implementation of our decision to government. It was completely ignorant of history, it has taught the upcoming generation nothing at all about how to risk assess wisely and has perversely led us (as Jenkins points out) to request ever more control of us by government.
Was it because of the absence of long-held certainties, like the Cold War, or pre-globalisation economic orders? Maybe. With society itself now marketised, not just economies, it’s entirely possible that the resulting discomfort (and government-propagated fear after 9/11) has led us, sheep-like, to ask our political masters to provide us with one cornerstone to put our trust in – safety. But Jenkins goes on to say:
There is no such thing as safe. There is only safer, and safer can require the greater watchfulness that comes with taking risks, witness new theories of road safety. Removing risk lowers the protective instinct of individuals and communities, and paradoxically leaves them in greater danger. But there is no government agency charged with averting that danger. There is no money in it.
Entirely right, and it’s worth remembering that although Nick Clegg has promised a groundbreaking bill, repealing the authoritarian excesses of New Labour, he hasn’t actually put his money where his mouth is yet – noone in the ConDemNation coalition has. Control orders? Unchanged. The Digital Economy Act? Unchanged. Any changes to the ISA, when quangos are apparently a ‘bad thing’? Nope. Jenkins argues that this is all motivated by money. When you compare what the coalition has promised to change with what’s actually going to change it seems like he might be right. It’s time to stand up for allowing risk to resume in society, for ‘protection’ to be proportionate and the need for it assessed by individuals once more. The industry promulgating this trend has to be torn down, but in an age of extraordinarily craven politics, the means can only come from us. Why should a profitable industry wind itself up, after all?