Sunday, 15 May 2011

Safety first dogma is poisoning our lives

What’s your image of Glasgow? Having lived there for nearly 20 years I’ve come across a range of images presenting the city as many things. When I first moved to Glasgow it had officially become the City of Culture, but for some it remained the ‘Workers City’, or it was a city that was ‘Smiles Better’. For me, all of these images had something positive about them (even the naff smiley faced one) compared to a more recent advertisement that read Glasgow: Safe City.

Believe it or not, in 2008 Glasgow was ranked the UK’s safest city, no doubt to the great joy of the city’s tourist board, but should we be so jubilant about this ‘result’, should we even be prioritising safety as an objective for councils and government? Or rather, should we not recognise that the myopic preoccupation with safety today undermines our freedom, chips away at liberty within Scotland and infantilises us all?

As we’re in Glasgow, let’s stay there a while and go for a drink. We can take a taxi into town, but perhaps we should ensure it’s a black cab – after all, as a female friend warned me – ‘these minicab drivers may not have been vetted’. If we avoid being abused by the taxi driver we can push past the smokers hunched outside the pub, but only after we’ve been checked out by the array of bouncers who are now on the door of almost every pub in the city centre. Once inside we will hopefully get a glass of whisky, but best drink it quick just in case the licensing board try to make us all sup out of plastics again like they did in 2006. But if they haven’t managed to make us all safe from being glassed, they can at least help us to be aware of the need to ‘Drink Responsibly’, or if we go the casino, to ‘Gamble Responsibly’. (Isn’t that an oxymoron?). Don’t worry about getting a bit drunk and starting some Glasgow football banter, the beer mats will reminding you to give the red card to sectarianism and help you to mind your language. Let’s take a trip to the toilet and be made aware of the latest risky sexually transmitted disease by the poster standing over us at the urinal as we look down at our endangered organ. And finally, after our safe night in town, we can take a taxi home outside Central Station where there is no need to worry about the other people in the queue anymore as we have the friendly taxi queue organisers, with their official luminous yellow waist coats waving us safely on our way to bed. What a night out we had in Glasgow: Safe City.

These examples may appear trivial, but it reflects a trend towards the regulation of everyday life that is spreading across Scotland and the UK, a trend that runs the risk of breeding a generation of young people who hardly know what it means to be a member of the public, indeed who hardly know what it means to be a free, responsibly individual – to be an adult.

Let’s stick with the theme of drink and take a look at the recent debate in the Scottish parliament about increasing the price of booze to get a taste of the illiberal attitudes that exist today.

The underlying idea used to support the case for pumping the price of cheap booze up was that too many people drink too much and kill themselves, too many people are alcoholics and too many people get drunk and fight and cause mayhem in communities. Or in a nut shell, ‘We can’t trust people. We can’t trust the poor working classes in particular. We need to protect you from other people and from yourself’. This used to be called authoritarianism, but today, with almost nobody making the case for individual freedom, it can pass as another enlightened form of health and safety awareness raising.

As with most new laws and regulations, remembering of course that the UK Labour governments introduced a new law for every day they were in office, here the booze barney fed off the most extreme examples to justify new regulations that would effect us all: Eleven year olds turning up drunk in school, dying alcoholics and stories of youth on estates ‘sucking on big plastic bottles of cheap booze’ and terrorising the community. The solution? Increase the price on cheap booze for everyone and hey presto all these various social problems go away (really?) and we all have to pay more for the alcohol we want to drink.

Even if increasing the price of booze had some impact should it be supported? Like it or not making the wrong choices is part of being free and as John Stuart Mill argued, the greater good of freedom of choice far out weighs the harm done by people through drink. For Mill the most important thing was not the choices people made, but the type of people making those choice – free choosing individuals. Ironically one of the most powerful barriers to drinking excessively is self control, self respect and self discipline – all of which are products of a liberal culture and a culture that celebrates freedom and the ideal of the robust, responsible individual – the very culture and freedom that is being drained from society by the safety zealots.

But if society has lost trust in us adults to look after ourselves and deal with one another, this is nothing compared to the Kafkaesque world of child safety. At a recent Scottish Parents Teachers Council, Caroline Stewart, of the Central Registered Body in Scotland, explained to the confused audience all the ins and outs of the new national disclosure system. ‘Do we have to vet Santa at our community event’, one parent asked. I can’t remember the exact reply but it ran something like this, ‘Oh if you know the Santa, on page 87, paragraph 12, clause three, of the guidelines, you’ll find that in this case, Santa does not have to be vetted’. Having listened to an array of questions by parents trying to understand all the technicalities of the new regulations, I had to ask Caroline, ‘Is this not insane?’. Most of the SPTC members laughed and nodded in agreement, but what can they do, ‘the rules is the rules’.

But like many of the safety regulations today, it is often the informal ones, the ones that don’t actually exist in law, the ones that the culture of safety encourage which often impact the most. So after we’ve all recovered from our hangover this Christmas and trip down to our children’s nativity plays, don’t be surprised if the headteacher patronises us all by telling us to put our cameras away – ‘just in case’.
Yes indeed, Glasgow may well be a Safe City, indeed Scotland may be a safe country, but it is a country run by experts and authorities who are dripping with distrust, and dominated by a culture within which adults are treated as vulnerable and incompetent.

But a vibrant nation cannot be built, and dynamic individuals cannot be formed within a climate where we are no longer expected to be able to deal with one another in a pub, or have the capacity to get a taxi home. Nor can a sense of independence or trust be built when we are all treated as potential alcoholic or potential paedophiles. Perhaps most importantly, none of us can become truly adult when we accept all these rules governing our own and everybody else’s lives.

This article appeared in The Scotsman on 7 December 2010

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