Leading Article: A time for cool heads

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The Independent Online
FOR GOVERNMENT policy to be decided in the midst of scandal and moral panic is not merely foolish, but irresponsible and dangerous. Legislate in haste, and the population will repent at leisure. The case of Stephen Lawrence was indeed appalling. The crime itself was horribly brutal, and the failure of the police to take effective action against the criminals afterwards grotesque. There is, as Geoffrey Robertson points out on this page, much good in the Macpherson report. Its recommendations on race policies, however, are often wrong-headed. The hyperbole from the right about "Thought Police" and "Orwellian nightmares" is predictable, but the fact is that some of the report's legislative proposals are excessive, ill-considered and dangerous. If implemented, they would represent an assault on liberal values.

The answer to incompetence in the Metropolitan Police is not intemperance. To overturn long established principles, such as the prohibition of double jeopardy, on the basis of a single case would be downright ridiculous. To try to expunge by means of the criminal law the expression of certain unacceptable or revolting ideas is to attack the very basis of a free society. No decent person can fail to be disturbed by the racism that undeniably exists in Britain today, but Britain is not a racist society. Those who want to improve race relations must remember that it is far easier to inflame prejudice than to eliminate it from the human heart.

Unfortunately, this Government, like the last, shows signs of being susceptible to the mood of national hysteria which has its origin, at least in part, in the circulation wars of some of our newspapers. The fact is that intemperance sells the product. People like to be enraged and they like to be frightened. A demand for immediate action is thus created when what is needed, above all by legislators, is a cool head, a sense of proportion and an ability to resist the demands of understandably emotional lobby groups.

A dog kills a baby and we get the Dangerous Dogs Act. A disturbed man shoots dead children in Dunblane and thousands of people are deprived of their property without adequate compensation. A faint suggestion that the agent of BSE can be found in peripheral nervous tissue and we are not allowed to buy beef on the bone. A psychopath kills, and the Home Secretary proposes that potentially dangerous psychopaths, of whom there are many thousands, be locked up for life before they have done anything illegal. There are regrettably many examples of regulations decreed in the first flush of media frenzy.

It seems to follow from the fact that if a problem, or even only a potential problem, exists, something must be done about it, principally by the Government, irrespective of whether that something will actually cause problems far worse than the one it was intended to solve. And since only highly visible and intrusive measures will persuade the frenzied population that government really cares, and gain the notice of the media, there is an inherent and apparently unstoppable tendency, once a mood of hysteria has been created by large headlines and blanket coverage, to unwise, exaggerated and profoundly illiberal responses. The road to tyranny - whether of a minority or a majority - is paved with hysteria.

To apportion blame, and then hate the person or people blamed, is very gratifying - at least for a time - to the dissatisfied. Unfortunately the appetite for hatred, like other appetites, grows by what it feeds on. Those who wish to influence public opinion must therefore become ever more intemperate in their denunciations. Vehemence of language comes to be equated with depth of feeling, and a sense of proportion with indifference to injustice.

In a recent article in the Times, for example, Lord Beloff drew an analogy between Mr Blair and Adolf Hitler. It is not necessary to be a blind supporter of the Prime Minister to spot several important differences between the two figures, however, just as it was not necessary to be a Thatcherite to spot several important differences when Salman Rushdie compared Mrs Thatcher's Britain to Nazi Germany.

Many more people may have read Lord Beloff's article than would have done so had he compared Mr Blair to, say, Lloyd George (indeed, such an article might never have been published, as having been insufficiently sensational or provocative). Lord Beloff therefore served his newspaper's purposes admirably. In doing so, he has added his mite to the propensity to exaggeration and hysteria which is so marked a characteristic of public life in Britain today.

To exaggerate in Lord Beloff's and Salman Rushdie's fashion is to create an inflamed atmosphere in which people are no longer able to make proper distinctions between the scale of various problems. Indeed, all problems and dissatisfactions come to seem of equal dimensions, calling for the most radical solutions.

If we are not to be blown hither and thither on the fickle wind of public alarm - one minute demanding the preventive detention of thousands of innocents, the next the total disbandment of the Metropolitan Police - we must put sensational events into perspective. This requires both common sense and a high level of general knowledge. Shrill headlines will contribute to neither. They may sell newspapers, but in the process they will destroy the conditions in which freedom and tolerance flourish.