Yes, it's nannyish, but remember what we said about seat belts

Steve Crawshaw Banning Things
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The Independent Online
The list already gives the impression of being endless. And still, it gets longer. Ban follows ban - and the protests get louder. Preposterous, absurd, surreal. The words of condemnation for the new culture of interference come pouring out, day after day.

The latest proposal - that video games should carry a warning of the dangers of reckless driving - comes hard on the heels of a host of other equally pernickety rules, each of which seems more startling than the last. We are about to see the death of the T-bone steak (because of of the alleged risk of the human version of CJD), the death of the doorstep (bad for the disabled), and the end of tobacco advertising as we know it. After last week's T-bone ruling, this week it seems that some cuts of lamb are next in line for the (proverbial) chop.

Things have got so bad that William Hill bookmakers say they are "tempted" by the idea of offering odds on what ban might come next. The next target might be unpasteurised milk (which is already banned in Scotland). There is even a lurking threat against some exotic fruit, because of the risk that they may bring tropical diseases into the country.

The response to all this rule-making has been high indignation. In the words of John Casey, a fellow of Caius College, Cambridge, writing in the Evening Standard this week: "The nanny state continues its advance in seven-league, hand-knitted jackboots." John Adams, professor of geography at University College, London and author of a book on risk, believes that we have reached an absurd stage, if the individual's freedom is so severely restricted. "If you're going to criminalise health risks, where on earth do you stop? The sale of tobacco, the sale of alcohol - the eating of cream buns?"

When it comes to beef on the bone, many in this country clearly share Professor Adams' view. On hearing the announcement that T-bone steaks would soon be a thing of the past, Britons rushed out to buy them while the going was still good. "While stocks last" seemed almost to be a selling point. British meat producers yesterday announced a challenge to "taste the difference" between and boneless joints and meat cooked on the bone - the politically correct and the illicit charmer of the meat-eater's world respectively.

Many argue that the question of risk is a matter for the individual - at least as long as the individual is properly informed. None the less, that argument has been heard on different occasions over the years; it has rarely seemed relevant, in hindsight.

When seatbelts were made compulsory in 1983, opponents of the legislation insisted that this was an unacceptable violation of individual rights. They wanted the right to be thrown through a windscreen, and (allegedly) survive. The same argument was heard over crash helmets. People insisted that they should not have to wear crash helmets if they did not want to. A tiny minority still hold that view. But the great majority have long since accepted that the inconvenience is small, by comparison with the potential benefit to all.

Only 10 years ago, drink-driving was considered socially acceptable, and the laws against it were seen by many as intrusive. But that, too, has changed. People accept the law as entirely natural. The freedom to drink and drive is considered no more desirable than the freedom to kill one's neighbour.

I admit: I would (occasionally) like to eat beef on the bone. I would like, too, to be allowed to eat unpasteurised cheese, in full knowledge of the risks. Governments may sometimes be inclined to wish to impose a ban too far. But is that really worse than all the occasions when government has imposed a ban too few?

Pressure groups are ready to call for bans, at the drop of a hat. But commercial groups which have vested interests in risks not being fully discussed are more powerful still. After all, the risks of asbestos and the risks of Thalidomide were not addressed until it was far too late - partly because powerful lobbies conspired to keep things that way.

More recently, the British government was determined just a few years ago to show that the worries about mad cow disease in meat were just down to a few irrelevant whingers. The political and economic knock-on effect of any ban would clearly be painful; ergo, a ban was out of the question. It was an absurd logic. The famous burger-feeding session by John Gummer to his daughter Cordelia was down to a determination to look the other way. In retrospect (but not just in retrospect) it was woefully wrong to do so.

If the present government has gone too far the other way, we should not jump too quickly to condemnation. The ban on handguns may appear to have been just an emotional (read "immature") reaction to the slaughter at Dunblane. But it seems unlikely that any future government will wish to reverse the strict new gun-law legislation, any more than any government would seek to overturn the laws on child labour or on environmental protection. That must be the most important test of whether legislation is sane or insane: in time, does it come to seem a bizarre aberration, or does it come to seem perfectly normal?

We now take health warnings on cigarettes for granted - smokers and non- smokers alike would be startled if the warnings were absent. As for the latest ruling, that new houses should be built without doorsteps, thus making access easier for the disabled - what on earth, one might ask, is all the fuss about? Planning laws have long sought to make life easier and safer for all. Sometimes, the rules - exactly how steep stairs are allowed to be, how the railings should be designed - may seem pointless. But pointless rules eventually fall by the wayside. Hundreds and thousands of sensible rules remain - for our collective good.

We sometimes like to boast, with teenage bravado, that we understand everything well enough by ourselves. We're grown-ups who don't need anybody to tell us what to do. The law-makers come to seem like an irritating Big Brother. In reality, the "default" setting is more often to do nothing - because we understand nothing. Mr Gummer's grisly photo-opportunity with Cordelia was the clearest illustration of complacent ignorance that one could ask for.

The new Freedom of Information Act will at least reduce the chances of such a disastrous rerun of the BSE catastrophe, where the Government made a speciality of being economical with the truth. If we know what is happening, then we will already be better equipped to deal with the risks. Protests at new legislation are intended to be libertarian; they are in danger of merely sounding petulant.

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