Another post Matthew Parris – no more signs, please commends an article by Matthew Parris in the Times of 16 June 2007, called “No smoking. No this. No that. And no more signs, please”. This is one of a proposed set of posts on the plague of signs and notices.
Let us start with the smoking ban. I am against it anyway on the twin grounds that I smoke and that it is hypocritical of the government to preach choice whilst outlawing it. The point at issue here, however, is just the signs. It is a blanket ban, applicable in all indoor public places. One of the reasons given by the proponents of a blanket ban was the potential difficulty which would otherwise exist of defining where you could and where you could not smoke. The full ban does at least have the merit of simplicity.
So why do we need notices everywhere, including churches where no-one would dream of smoking? Let’s start at the top, with strutting Supernanny Caroline Flint. Flint is on a roll at the moment, her bossy I-know-better-than-you attitude in tune with New Labour’s illiberalism and, sadly, with an increasingly supine populace. Having won the smoking ban itself, it is predictable that she would want to rub it in with notices, making the display of them as much an offence as smoking itself.
The point is this. Public indoor smoking will disappear at a stroke. There will be little or no resistance and no need for enforcement. Caroline Flint’s legacy (as no doubt she sees it) will be quickly forgotten. The notices will remain, however, as a constant reminder (in her terms) of what she has achieved, an outward sign of her success.
And outward signs is all that Ms Flint consists of. Take away her (admittedly rather fine) breasts and legs and there is nothing else to speak of, certainly nothing between the ears (no, I am not sexist and am all in favour of women in politics but not when all they have to bring to politics is a nice pair of tits and a screeching tone).
Signs and notices are a very New Labour kind of thing anyway. They accompany the patronising perception in government that people are children who need constant reminders – not just legislation, but nagging reminders of what can and cannot be done. It is a feature of two completely opposite types of government, the totalitarian right and the paternalist left that the populace must be constantly nagged in this way. New Labour is in conduct and attitude a curious hybrid of these two extremes. There is little difference in tone between notices which tell you not to commit an offence and those which purport to tell you what you should do for your own alleged good.
Another characteristic of New Labour legislation is that its proponents are not at all interested in either the implementation of it or the secondary effects – look at the HIPs debacle as an example, and that was promoted by a minister (Yvette Cooper) who has got a thinking apparatus, not by Caroline Flint. If the upshot of a new law is that every office, bar and church is plastered in big metal signs, then who cares, or even notices any more? The built environment takes another small step downhill – and there have been so many such small steps.
Then there are the civil servants who draft the rules. They love signs. It is not just that they think that others – “them” – need notices to tell them what they must or must not do. The typical civil servant wants them as well for his or her own sake. They feel uncertain if there is not a notice to direct their thoughts.
The trouble with this, as Matthew Parris observes, is that the rest of us lose certainty as well. The proliferation of notices governing every aspect of life leads to the conclusion that if there is no notice to forbid something it must be allowed – the very opposite of the presumption that we are deemed to know the law and that ignorance of it is no defence. This inverts too the common law presumption that everything which is not prohibited is allowed, replacing it with the de facto assumption that you can do anything which is not banned by a notice.
To meet this, the authorities feel it necessary to put up more and more notices. By now, we are down to the bottom of the governance pond, the half-lives who trudge the corridors of local authorities. Notices are their comfort blanket. Putting one up is a token – they have done something tangible, and if something goes wrong it won’t be for want of a notice. It will be someone else’s fault.