Britain: trembling before its buns

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The burning question of the day is: should we ban the bun? According to Sunday newspapers, local authorities ‘across the country’ have banned schools from serving hot-cross buns this Easter, for fear that the symbol of the Cross might offend those of non-Christian faiths.

As the great debate hots up, some authorities have proposed the compromise ‘let them eat naan bread’. But that could also prove offensive to believers in the new bible of the middle classes, Dr Atkins’s no-carbohydrate diet.

The overcooked scare about hot-cross buns follows reports about an infants’ school banning stories involving pigs, because they might provoke religious unrest among Muslim five-year-olds, and the Red Cross banning Nativity scenes from its charity shops, in case they should provoke a passing Islamicist to smash the infidel window. None of these ludicrous bans was implemented in response to complaints from Muslims. Indeed, the Muslim Council of Britain has described the bun ban as ‘very, very bizarre. British Muslims are very concerned about the upcoming war with Iraq and are hardly going to be taken aback by a hot-cross bun’.

Instead, these measures are designed to deal with what Liberal Democrat-run Liverpool council calls ‘the potential to offend’. Rather than tackling existing social problems (of which there is hardly a shortage), the authorities prefer to sit around dreaming up fantastic ‘what if?’ worst-case scenarios, and declaring war on phantom enemies such as the bigoted bun. It is tempting to dismiss this sort of nonsense. Yet it is symptomatic of something deeper and important about the way we live now. Our society has lost faith, not just in its gods, but in its humanity. It assumes that people are such fragile individuals that we cannot risk offending them with words, symbols or ‘hate cakes’. Of the myriad socio medical conditions that supposedly afflict us today, Thin-Skinned Syndrome is the most widely diagnosed.

A similar attitude of ‘zero tolerance’ towards risk and uncertainty underpins much of public debate, as evidenced by other Sunday headlines. Take ‘Killer bug sparks travel alert’: the World Health Organisation has issued an extraordinary global health alert about a new superbug. The fact that it has killed nine people, all of whom reportedly live in or have visited one Chinese province, was sufficient to see it officially branded ‘a worldwide health threat’. A WHO spokesman said that ‘people might think we’re overreacting’. Surely not.

Or how about ‘London police identify alarming rise in stranger murders’. Apparently, the number of women murdered by random ‘thrill killers’ in London has soared – from one in 2002, to two so far this year. Scotland Yard’s head of murder investigations says: ‘We need to reassure people that these attacks are very rare. But we must recommend to everyone that they take precautions.’ The only effective precaution to take against very rare, random attacks is presumably to stay in and lock all doors. Some might think that is a sensible thing for policemen to do, after yesterday’s report that the risk- police of the Health and Safety Executive are prosecuting the Commissioner of the Met because two officers fell through roofs while chasing suspects.

The daily deluge of stories such as these paints an image of an uncertain society that is scared of shadows. Many in authority seem ready to panic and run at the first sign of trouble – or even earlier, if a risk assessment report identifies any potential for there to be a first sign of trouble some time in the future. It is an unattractive picture that raises another question. Just how fit is the British state to fight an all-out war?

It seems that all of the hang-ups of our anxious, risk-averse, complaint-and-compensation culture are being projected on to the Gulf. So, while half of the British troops have refused the anthrax vaccine (another Gulf War Syndrome before there has even been a war), human rights lawyers are already threatening to prosecute British forces for crimes against humanity. It remains to be seen whether hot-cross buns will be served in the Naafi tent.

It is not military courage, but moral conviction, that appears to be in as short supply as decent boots and rifles. Alongside the stories of Marines preparing for war in the desertcomes a report that the top brass have ordered the Royal Marines regimental band to practise outdoors, for fear that the decibel count in the rehearsal room might infringe health and safety regulations and lay them open to being sued by trombonists with tinnitus. As Wellington said of the British forces in a very different context: I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but by God they scare me.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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Topics Politics


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