Today’s papers – particularly the Telegraph – are running the story that a future Conservative government would try to repeal the Hunting Act.
There’s an interesting devolutionary angle to all this – a majority of English and Welsh MPs apparently support repeal – which I might address in a future Red, White, and Blue. But what this story really got me thinking was: is this the only Labour measure we plan to repeal? If so, why?
It strikes me as very likely, to say the least, that Labour enacted a fair amount of what we in the Conservatives would consider to be bad laws. Likewise, Labour probably have a list of evil Tory laws they’d dearly love to see the back of. Yet despite this, and the adversarial nature of our political system, the word “repeal” very rarely crops up in the political agenda.
This seems especially strange for a putatively small-state, freedom-friendly party like ours, confronted as we are with the modern left’s fascination with banning things. With the apparent exception of hunting our habit appears to be to grumble about the nanny state whilst Labour are enacting some prohibition or other, and then quietly leave it be once we’re in office.
For example, take Boris’ decision to reject the decidedly creepy recommendation of his own commission to ban smoking in London parks – the better to turn them into “theatres of health”. This is an arch-statist and profoundly illiberal suggestion, and it’s not hard to see why the Mayor rejected it.
But isn’t it harder to envision, in the event that such a ban were passed – as proposer Lord Darzi is convinced it will be – a future Boris undoing such a ban? Stating that the essential tenets of liberalism were unaltered, the capacity and right of the citizen to make their own choices undiminished, and strike it down?
It appears to be a marked flaw in the current Conservative psyche that we resign ourselves to, rather than repeal, illiberal legislation if someone manages to enact it. This is not to dismiss welcome initiatives like the Deregulation Bill, but simply to wonder why such a bill seems to be a rare one-off.
If there is a Conservative government in May, why not take advantage of our flexible and as-yet-uncodified constitution and use the repeal of the Hunting Act to inaugurate a new legislative tradition: the regular Bill of Repeal?
This could be brought forward at regular intervals – once a year, maybe, or once a Parliament – and used to pro-actively exorcise redundant or otherwise unwanted legislation, instead of allowing passed laws to stand as faits accomplis.
Of course few pieces of legislation are wholly bad, but there seem a couple of easy fixes to that. The British Constitution permits partial repeal, which would allow specific provisions within an act to be repealed rather than the entire thing. Alternatively, the desired elements from acts up for repeal could be consolidated into some kind of bill of replacement.
One of the key problems with permanent legislatures, at least from a small-state perspective, is that they will always find work for themselves. Employ 650 people full time to make laws and they will find laws to make. Making these ‘Acts of Repeal’ a fixed, albeit small, part of the legislative calendar might help turn the thoughts and energies of our legislators and commentators, and perhaps even the public, to what they’d like off the statute book as well as what they’d like on it.
Highlighting the impermanence of legislation might also lessen the Conservative tendency to psychologically cave in once Labour has banned something. After all, the mechanism to repeal is only useful if the will to repeal is also present.
At present there is considerable debate around repealing several pieces of legislation: the Hunting Act, the Human Rights Act, and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Regardless of how you feel about any of those, there’s not been a better time to try to make a habit of un-legislating.