Alex Deane: How the march of officialdom is destroying cherished ways of life

Friday 29 January 2010 01:00
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A man in Ayr is facing a criminal trial after he was "caught" blowing his nose behind the wheel of his car.

Michael Mancini was given a £60 fixed penalty notice after a policeman decided he was "not in control of his vehicle" when he wiped his nose with a tissue. Mancini maintains that he was in stationary traffic and had put his handbrake on. He refused to pay the fine, and will now face a trial later this year.

This isn't a one-off, by any means (indeed, the policeman who gave Mancini his ticket was PC Stuart Gray – who recently issued a £50 fixed penalty to a man who accidentally dropped a £10 note in the street). It's symptomatic of life in this country today, which is fast becoming so illiberal that it's almost as if normal life is unlawful. From councils conducting covert surveillance of residents to check their catchment area to bureaucrats fining families for the contents of their bins, this culture of overbearing bossiness is changing our national life, with a "chilling effect" on social interaction – it's destroying traditional, harmless activities, and driving down outgoing natures, volunteerism, clubbable spirit – things we ought to cherish.

You may remember that in November, a young woman in Sandwell named Vanessa Kelly was stopped by a warden and given a £75 fixed penalty notice for throwing bread to the ducks in her local park. The fine was for "littering".

She refused to pay, she told her local press. Big Brother Watch leant a hand lining up media appearances, and – like most bullies when confronted – the council backed down. Not because they admitted they were in the wrong –but because they didn't want the fight.

I draw from this a lesson that you probably appreciate already – media criticism is all our masters care about. Well, I accept their terms. Using those tools, we can and must turn that fear around – so that in a few years' time, when the jobsworth is on the verge of handing out that illiberal fine, he feels the chilling effect himself.

Donning the uniform of office doesn't – or shouldn't – entail unlimited power to exact petty bureaucracy. It ought to come with discretion, with common sense. Failing that, let's try to bully them back.

Alex Deane is Director of Big Brother Watch www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk

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