I’ve undertaken a search through the last few months of our daily newslinks in order to compile a list. It’s a list of bans – all the different bans I can find that ministers have been reported at some point recently to be considering, proposing or introducing.
There are almost 30 of them:
- Eating dogs
- Plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds
- Live animal exports
- Electric shock dog collars
- Selling puppies and kittens in pet shops
- Online anonymity
- Selling coal for home fires
- Burning wet wood
- Wood-burning stoves
- Plastic plates and cutlery
- Bouncy castles
- Cold call pension sales
- Mobile phones in schools
- Selling elephant ivory (including antiques)
- Selling narwhal, hippo and walrus ivory
- Selling energy drinks to young people
- Selling fur
- Unreasonable landlord charges
- New petrol and diesel cars (after 2040)
- Hybrid vehicles that travel less than 50 miles on one charge
- Sexuality ‘conversion therapy’
- Advertising sugary and salty foods before 9pm
- Celebrity endorsements for unhealthy foods
- Opt-in organ donation
- A fourth runway at Heathrow
- Using cartoon characters in the marketing of sweets
- Two for one offers on sweets
- The promotion of unhealthy food at checkouts
You might agree with some of those ideas. You might even agree with all of them. But that’s beside the point. The ban seems to be becoming this Government’s habitual tool with which to respond to just about anything.
Is it healthy or wise for any administration to identify itself so closely with the purely negative lever of telling people “you can’t do that”? Of course outlawing things is a weapon in the state’s armoury, and some of the above list are no doubt appropriate responses to real problems, but Conservatives ought to be reluctant rather than eager to use the force of the law to micro-manage the decisions of individuals, families and businesses. When were valuable concepts like personal and parental responsibility sidelined in favour of simply instructing people as to what they may and may not eat, for example?
The list of bans is only the most visible symptom of this negativity. I haven’t touched on the punitive taxes that are reported to be under consideration – new levies on vaping, higher charges for plastic bags, etc, etc – but they are part of the same troubling trend. “The good that government can do”, which the Prime Minister once promised to demonstrate to the nation, has turned out to be more negative and invasive than was originally implied, as many libertarians feared when the phrase was first uttered.
By contrast, how long would the list be of ways in which the Government has recently considered or proposed to make people more free? There was Sajid Javid’s wise decision to allow doctors to prescribe some cannabis-prescribed medicines, but I can’t think of many others.
As I wrote back in May, meddling in people’s lives might temporarily satisfy some politicians’ itchy need to “do something”, or to paint themselves as go-getters, but the cumulative price is to paint the Government as increasingly dour, gloomy and authoritarian in both tone and policy. Some positivity, some joy, some creation of new opportunity and liberty would not go amiss.
Perhaps, as Johnny Mercer suggested last week, this is a symptom of the way in which the dominance of Brexit has limited the opportunity to legislate beyond relatively uncontroversial measures – but even if so, fewer bans might free up time to legislate more positively instead.