Rethinking Freedom in the Age of Health and Safety
Date: October 2009
A Battle of Ideas Satellite Event produced by Leeds Salon
ASBOs, bans on smoking and drinking in public places, the fight against obesity and regulation of school meals, parenting orders and the vetting of adults working with children and vulnerable people are only a few examples of the seemingly unstoppable rise of legislation and regulation designed to control people's behaviour in areas of personal and civic life that were previously free from state interference.
In 2005 then Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged that only a few years before the British people would not have found these changes 'acceptable'. For example, interference in the family through parenting orders 'would have either seemed somewhat bizarre or dangerous and indeed there are still people who see this as an aspect of the nanny state, or that we are interfering with the rights of the individual.'
Yet the erosion of such 'individual rights' has proceeded unhampered and at increasing pace. For the most part, these developments are neither presented nor experienced as infringements on liberty, but rather as commonsense measures to improve the health, security and wellbeing of all.
Is it really worth standing up for the right to smoke or drink wherever we please, to behave without consideration for others and to expose children to unnecessary risks? Should we welcome state guidance and regulation designed to help us lead healthy and happy lives? Or do we lose something when individuals must defer to a benevolent state?
Are our political leaders exploiting 'health and safety' to impose laws and regulations that are incompatible with a democracy of free citizens, or are they just responding to popular demand? Can indeed citizens be free that value health and safety above all things? Are restrictions of individual liberties a price worth paying for the sake of our communal life, or might they actually harm civil society?
'Curbing loutish alcohol misuse', Alan Johnson MP, The Guardian Comment is Free, 31 August 2009
'Booze Bans - the new frontier of joyless regulation', Henry Porter, The Guardian Comment is Free, 28 June 2008
'Robbed by the police: alcohol confiscation and the hyperregulation of public space', Manifesto Club Report, June 2009
'The new face of law 'n' order', David Clements, Spiked Review of Books, January 2008