The Liberal Democrats called it The Freedom Bill. The Tories called it The Great Repeal Bill. But the essence is the same. The over-mighty state has replaced our free society with one where personal liberty is curtailed and our ability to pursue our (enlightened) self-interest is inhibited. We need to sweep away the legislative and bureaucratic red tape and free ourselves to be the best we can.
The government’s answer is not only to repeal (or so it claims) vast swathes of legislation, but to ask the people what legislation should go: “As we tear through the statute book,” said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, “we’ll do something no government ever has: we will ask you which laws you think should go.”
Stirring stuff, but is it true? And just how far do the Tories and the Lib Dems really agree on why the bill is needed what it should seek to repeal?
The original Liberal Democrat proposal included a 2,000 word draft Bill. Though they did consult at the time, the draft bill does (perhaps unwittingly) convey a sense that the decision as to the content has already been taken. In that respect one must say that the Conservative proposal did represent a more honest consultation – though that may simply be because it came from two backbenchers rather than the party leadership.
In practice, however, one has to wonder just how genuine this exercise will be. Please don’t misunderstand! I do not think for one moment that our new Ministers are consciously planning to provide us with a sham consultation. But do you really think that in practice they will approach this exercise with an open mind?
For one thing, there are clearly areas of legislation that they would not even give a moment’s thought to abolishing. The National Health Service Act? The Income Tax Act? The Bank of England Act? Okay, those might seem like extreme suggestions, and they would be unlikely to carry much support in the country, but the point remains that it is incredible to believe that the government will really consider any suggestion that the public makes.
(And is it really so unfeasible that a movement might arise that wanted the abolition of Income Tax?).
So let’s take some more mundane suggestions. The bans on fox hunting and smoking in “public” (actually private) places are both examples of meddling legislation that seeks to ban practices based on legislators’ views of the ends that people should pursue. Whether or not you agree with either or both law, they would fit neatly under the rubric of Clegg’s “encroaching centralisation” that has led to “citizens’ rights [being] eroded by the quiet proliferation of laws”. Yet I can’t see the government abolishing either.
And even if there were no “Red Lines”: who will decide which suggestions will be enacted? Will it go to a vote? That would certainly fit with the Conservative’s enthusiasm for “Citizen’s initiatives”, but it seems unlikely that our political masters would accept the will of the mob so quiescently. After all, the Human Rights Act – an assault on which has already been declared a resigning issue by at least two government (including one Cabinet) ministers – is hardly popular with the tabloid-reading masses. Yet if, instead of some sort of referendum, the proposals have to be considered by some “expert panel” of the Great and the Good, it begins to look remarkably like it is the elite, and not the people, that will decide what is to be repealed.
This brings us on to a second question: just how united is the vision behind the bill?
At first glance, all looks well: Nick Clegg said, in his speech of 19 May 2010, that “encroaching centralisation” has led to “citizens’ rights [being] eroded by the quiet proliferation of laws”; Conservative MP Douglas Carswell wrote that “Laws, regulation and red tape stifle individuals, infantilise communities and strangle enterprise”; Chris Huhne suggested that Labour’s legislative programme has represented “the slow death by a thousand cuts of our hard-won British liberties”.
But a second glance reveals differences – not only between, but even within, parties. For some, the act is about civil liberties and human rights. It is about the abolition of the “Database State” and the power of police officers to shake down anyone they choose. But to others, it is as much about freeing businesses from stifling regulation and removing the absurd burdens that legislation places on daily life (It is, notes the quiz that accompanies the Freedom Bill proposal, illegal to import brazil nuts from Brazil, bring potatoes over from Poland or to sell a grey squirrel).
Both parties in fact have plenty of new regulations planned with which to disrupt individuals and businesses, from bans on airbrushing to minimum prices for alcohol. In practice, the political elite represented in both parties share one thing in common with their ex-Ministerial Labour foes: a belief that they know what is best for society and that – having won the election – they have the right to impose their will upon the citizen.
In practice, therefore – Great Repeal Act or no Great Repeal Act – I suspect that we will see plenty of new legislation in the economic and social sphere, even if our civil liberties may be strengthened in the short term.