Three apparently unconnected stories caught my eye in a single week recently.
- The Government has handed £29.5 million to local authorities to hire and train staff to catch people who smoke in pubs and other public places once the smoking ban comes into force.
- Police will no longer attend at the scene of a burglary unless the burglar is still on the premises
- Boys in South London are shooting each other in large numbers, apparently to enforce the “respect” they feel they deserve but do not get.
We see here a pretty clear statement of the Blair Government’s priorities, and a snapshot of the society it has created. We do not, apparently, have the money for proper policing, but we can fund an army of council snoopers to pry on smokers. Perhaps worse, there is no shortage of volunteers for the job. What does it say about our society that there are people keen to take the job of prying on people like this?
The snoopers will lurk incognito in pubs armed with cameras and will pop up and snap anyone who defies the ban, before demanding £50 fines. The Government denies that this is the intention – the money is to “help local authorities prepare for the introduction of smoke-free legislation” says the Department of Health.
We know how this works. The role of traffic wardens is allegedly to keep traffic flowing smoothly and safely, a role they fulfill by lurking outside the chemist to catch you as you rush in with a prescription. The Terrorism Act was designed to give extraordinary powers to combat violent extremists but is invoked by every pea-brained policeman who cannot think what else to charge you under. Recycling regulations are used to justify fines for putting things in the “wrong” bins and to give jumped-up officials the excuse to lecture you on your life-style.
Each of these examples begins with a piece of legislation which, whatever one’s view on its merits or on the methods used to win it, has been passed by Parliament and is the law.The gap between Parliament’s intentions and real life has two causes – the extent to which the detail of the legislation is delegated away from Parliament, and the quality and motivation of those who enforce its provisions.
The first point is a constitutional matter which it would take a book to explain and an election (or perhaps a revolution) to put right. The latter – the accretion of power in the hands of those least trustworthy to use it – represents a bigger threat to an acceptable society than even this government. Governments can be tipped out and their legislation undone. The power of the council minion and the policeman whose authority outstrips his capacity to know what is right is very much harder to reverse.
So who will want the job of shopping people who smoke in pubs? Ross Anderson, writing in the Times on 19 February thought this “a jobsworth’s wet dream: you get to stop people enjoying themselves, you get to order them around, and, joy of joys, you get to dish out spot fines”, a job, he thought for “a pompous, preening prig with his nose in everyone’s business and an exaggerated sense of his own importance”. He envisaged “a dark trilby and a long, black leather coat with a SmokeStoppers” insignia on the lapel: or SS for short”.
Let’s be more specific.
I see a middle-aged woman, disappointed with life, her mouth a cat’s bottom of permanent disapproval; perhaps her husband spent his time at the pub with his friends before running off with one of hers.
Then there’s the man with the little moustache who used to be in charge of the stores or stationery cupboard before being made redundant. He used to wear a brown storeman’s coat and speaks as if he has a peg over his nose. He loved being able to say”No” whenever anyone wanted something, and feels he can deliver comparable levels of minor misery by becoming a smoking snooper.
There is the acne’d youth whose school contemporaries (he never had any friends) go off to the pub and enjoy themselves with smoke and drink and girls whilst he sits in his bedroom with a well-worn copy of Readers’ Wives in one hand. They will have to notice him now.
Those who failed the traffic warden’s entry test will find this much easier. There will be no difficult regulations to learn; they won’t have to read number plates or tell the time, just smell smoke and press a button.
The ugly girls who would love to be taken out but never are. The sour-faced, lank-haired women whose hatred of men and smoke makes them seek them out so that they can whine about them. The sludge which collects at the bottom of every local authority pond who get moved from department to department because they are really unemployable even in that undemanding environment, but who cannot be dismissed through political correctness or union strength.
Meanwhile, the police will not turn out if you have been burgled – so much time freed up for essential paperwork, and an immediate reduction in the crime statistics, for who will bother to report what will not be dealt with? The young men of Peckham will continue to shoot at each other, victims of failed education and crime policies and abandoned by every expensive Government agency as being too difficult a route to the improved statistics which New Labour demands.
There will be plenty of statistics from the smoking ban – pubs closed down for want of customers, for example. The job losses, however, will be off-set, in part at least, as the detritus at the bottom of the work-force finally finds work worthy of it. As they throw off their disguises to reveal their badges, they will feel like a cross between a paparazzo, Brodie from “The Professionals” and Superman ridding the world of evil. After a lifetime of being nobodies, they will be getting the “respect” that the Peckham boys yearn for.
They will look to us like something from the Stasi in Honecker’s East Germany. This will be fine by Patricia Hewitt, who has devoted her life to telling us how we should live ours, but I am not sure that all those Lib Dems who voted for the smoking ban will feel either liberal or democratic when enforcement begins.