Authoritarians in search of meaning

The UK’s devolved parliaments have become shockingly illiberal.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

Wales recently became the first region in the UK to ban the use of e-cigarettes in enclosed public places. Welsh Assembly ministers justified the ban by saying it would prevent the ‘normalisation of smoking’, whatever that means. The ban is likely to come into force in 2017. Surprisingly, there has been opposition to the new law from anti-smoking campaigners. They correctly point out that e-cigarettes are not harmful in the way smoking tobacco is and that they have helped heavyweight smokers kick the habit. Far from being a health risk, e-cigarettes are a harmless way for individuals to enjoy nicotine. Even from the killjoy perspective of health zealots, the e-cig ban appears an irrational and needlessly authoritarian policy.

The creation of petty new laws has become a speciality of the devolved assemblies in the UK. The Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly often go much further than the UK parliament in controlling and criminalising day-to-day behaviour. Given parliament’s track record in this regard, that’s saying an awful lot. Earlier this month, for instance, the Welsh Assembly made smoking in cars with a child present illegal. In its short existence, the Welsh Assembly has introduced measures that have ranged from enforcing healthy eating in schools to ensuring that local authorities are ‘supporting’ (that is, intervening in) family life.

The picture is much the same in London. When Boris Johnson was elected mayor of London in 2008, his first measure, passed within a few days of his being elected, was to ban drinking alcohol on the Tube. Across London, local authorities are currently killing off the city’s vibrant nighttime economy with endless health-and-safety regulations.

Such petty measures don’t tackle any major problems. In fact, the problems they claim to address are often invented. But they do create a more restrictive and authoritarian society. However, the intolerant measures introduced by the Welsh and London assemblies are positively libertarian when compared with what’s happening north of the border in the Scottish Parliament.

In March this year, a 24-year-old fan of Rangers, the largely Protestant-supported Glasgow football team, was jailed for four months for singing ‘The Billy Boys’, an old anti-Catholic ditty that Rangers fans have been singing for years to wind up fans of Celtic, their largely Catholic-supported rivals. He was arrested, found guilty of songcrimes and sent down. It’s all down to the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act. Introduced in 2012 by the largest party in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP), the act outlaws ‘behaviour of any kind’ at or around football matches that is ‘threatening’ or which a ‘reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive’. The law has led to Celtic fans being arrested in dawn raids for the crime of singing pro-IRA songs, while Rangers fans have been hauled to court for chanting unsavoury things about Catholics.

The SNP has also taken to policing Scots’ eating, drinking and smoking habits. It was the first part of the UK to introduce the smoking ban. Earlier this year, it announced a ban on smoking in cars when children are present. The SNP is now considering a ban on smoking in parks and plans to hike up the tax on booze – as if alcohol wasn’t expensive enough in pubs and bars. But it is in the Children and Young People Act where the irrational but deeply authoritarian instinct of the devolved assemblies reaches its zenith.

Due to come into force in August 2016, this act plans to assign a ‘named person’, a state-approved guardian, to every baby born in Scotland, in order to monitor people from birth up to the age of 18. It is, in essence, a form of shadow parenting and effectively makes all Scottish children wards of the state. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out, the Scottish Parliament is ‘creating a truly cradle-to-grave system of state meddling in people’s lives, where from birth to adulthood, and everywhere from football games to the pub, from the CCTV-saturated streets to your local restaurant, you’re being watched, finger-wagged at, told what you can and can’t say’. One writer declared that crossing the border into Scotland now means ‘crossing into what is becoming a foreign land, in which the dominant political mindset is separatist, statist and bossy’.

What’s going on? How did the creation of new forms of representative democracy in the UK lead to such a stifling, illiberal and miserable state of affairs? When Tony Blair’s New Labour government introduced devolved legislatures in 1997, with parliament voting in favour of new representative assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the following year, it was hailed as a way of extending and revitalising UK democracy. Citizens in regional areas would have a ‘greater say’ on what happens to issues that supposedly affect them directly. And through the use of proportional-representation systems, the devolved assemblies would be more representative of the popular vote than in Westminster. A shift from the unitary state of Old Britain to the quasi-federalism of New Britain would help to create a more dynamic, responsive and, above all, representative system of government. Or, at least, that’s the story that was being sold.

There’s no doubt, of course, that electoral reform can have an impact on political life. The use of PR systems can facilitate the rise of multi-party contests and, in theory at least, create more choice at the ballot box. The phenomenal rise of the SNP in Scotland, which took 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats in the recent General Election, is partially a consequence of the Scottish Parliament, in which the SNP has held a majority since 2007. The party’s success in the Scottish Parliament has paved the way for an increase in support for Scottish independence. According to many commentators, the introduction of some devolved powers in Scotland has engaged Scottish citizens in ways that appear alien and unnerving to the Westminster village.

Behind all the constitutional hyperbole, though, the devolved assemblies don’t quite enjoy as much legitimacy as electoral reformers and Scottish nationalists like to make out. Apart from 1999, the first year that Scots could vote in Scottish Parliament elections, voter turnout has hovered between 49 and 51 per cent. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement. Voter turnout for the elections in the Welsh Assembly is even lower – a paltry 38 per cent in the 2003 election and 42 per cent in the 2011 election. For the majority of ordinary citizens in Scotland and Wales, the new assemblies are seen as having no real power to improve people’s lives. They are often likened to glorified church parishes whose only purpose is to create a new layer of bureaucracy and a new set of professional politicians.

The trouble here, though, is that ministers in the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament instinctively understand that the devolved assemblies aren’t powerhouses of decision-making. Local assemblies may be able to make decisions on collecting the bins, sorting out street lighting or tinkering with transport, but they’re not in a position to make a substantial difference to a region’s economy. They’re not in a position to implement changes that can improve infrastructure or affect the lives of people in any meaningful way. Instead, they have the power to meddle, interfere and restrict ordinary people’s day-to-day behaviour. They’re meaningless institutions desperately in search of meaning. So, in order to create a sense of purpose, to show they’re more than just talking shops, the devolved assemblies introduce fresh bans, new laws and more red tape. Yes, banning e-cigarettes in public places or placing all children under state surveillance doesn’t make much rational sense. But for a minister seeking to justify their existence, such policies make perfect sense.

The other malign impact of the devolved assemblies is that they have encouraged activists to embrace regional identities at the expense of national or traditional class identities. Rather than seeking common solutions to problems that affect the majority of people in the UK, short-term regional gains are becoming more appealing. It creates a new dynamic whereby activists are more likely to defend all sorts of authoritarian measures that they would object to if Westminster had introduced them. The SNP congratulates itself for demolishing the Labour Party’s support in Scotland, only to introduce controls and bans that make New Labour appear like a collection of commune-dwelling anarchists. As anyone who has argued with SNP members will know, they’re bizarrely incapable of making any critical judgements about their party’s poisonous authoritarianism. The centrality of Scottish identity is a way through which politics is now suspended north of the border. All of these developments show that the UK is heading the same way as Spain, whereby regional loyalties trump the interests of a national centre.

Far from revitalising democracy and representation, the devolved assemblies have amplified the illiberal impulses of 21st-century politics. In their quest for a reason to exist, devolved assemblies have had to devise new ways in which to surveil, control and restrict people’s day-to-day lives. The devolved assemblies were founded as part of a window-dressing attempt to sharpen up UK politics, but they’ve become another blunt instrument of authoritarian bureaucracy. In the interests of safeguarding liberties and rights, we should do the decent thing and abolish the lot of them.

Neil Davenport is a writer and education consultant based in London.

Picture by: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

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Topics Politics


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