Leading Article: A time for cool heads

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Secondary supply teachers needed in Peterborough

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The JobAre you a trai...

Year 3 Teacher Cornwall

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbridge Wells - £32,000

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Generalist (standalone) - Tunbrid...

Year 3 Teacher Plymouth

£23500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Primary Teacher...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Fifi Geldof (left) with her sister Pixie at an event in 2013  

Like Fifi Geldof, I know how important it is to speak about depression

Rachael Lloyd
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering