Friday, 9 July 2010

The law's an ass to put out to grass

I AM tempted to start this week with a bracing burst of song. Only slightly misquoting the late Edwin Starr, let’s all sing along now:
“Law – huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
Well, OK, I wouldn’t really go quite that far. The proscription against killing people, for example, is quite important, I think. Or injuring them unpleasantly.
And the stuff about driving fast in built-up areas (though that’s really just putting detail on the bits about killing and injuring).
A lot of the rest essentially merely imposes the opinions or preferences of one group of people (mostly the better-off) on everyone else.
Like most folk, I was brought up to respect the law. And I suppose, broadly, I do. I certainly don’t go out of my way to break it and I wouldn’t encourage others to break it, either.
The problem is that there are just too many darned laws for any one person to know what they all are. Which can make it hard to avoid stepping over the lines inadvertently.
And there are a lot of bad laws out there, which can have the effect of lessening respect for the whole system.
Which brings me to Nick Clegg’s Big Idea.
The deputy PM is front-man for the Your Freedom website, which leads off with the words: “The Coalition Government is committed to restoring and defending your freedom – and we’re asking you to participate.”
Which could be seen, depending on viewpoint, as democracy in action, window-dressing, or just funking it.
I have my suspicions, but we’ll only know for sure, I suppose, when we see which of the public’s ideas actually make it onto (or off) the statute book.
The last government was obsessed with law-making. Most of it was nonsense, and scrapping much of it might not be a bad thing.
While we’re at it, it would be a good thing to roll back most of the blights imposed on us before that by the Thatcher and Major administrations too.
In fact, if Mr Clegg really wants our ideas on which laws to scrap, I’d put the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act top of the list.
Buried in the sludge of that ill-conceived hodge-podge were one or two provisions I’d agree with. But mostly it was a badly-written rag-bag of oppression.
The enshrining in statute of the then-current obsessions and prejudices of the Tory press and the Tory right wing, as personified in the home secretary, Michael Howard.
It might have been deliberately designed to undermine respect for the law and its officers among large sections of the populace.
The increasing of police powers of unsupervised “stop and search” can only have damaged the relationship between cops and citizens.
And that’s before you consider the extended right to take and retain “intimate body samples”.
The silliest, and most controversial, aspect of the Act, though, was its broad-brush attack on youth culture.
The criminalising of trespass, squatting and “unauthorised camping”. The restrictions on organised protest.
Most particularly the idiotic section banning “raves”, along with its definition of music “characterised by repetive beats”.
I don’t think that section was ever used to prevent a military band from parading, but it surely could have been. It was used last year to close down a barbecue held by 15 people on their own land.
Ironically, the same Act also ended the old tradition of a suspected person’s non-prejudicial right to silence.
The Labour government that came in three years later could have ditched all that. Instead they set about making matters worse with their own Crime And Disorder Act of 1998.
On the plus side, it formally ended capital punishment. And, a theoretical plus if not a practical one, it brought in a new category of racially or religiously aggravated offences.
In the totally-daft-let’s-scrap-it-now category, it brought in the ASBO.
Time, surely, for that insane invention, the scallywags’ badge of honour, to be consigned to history’s dustbin.
With it, please, Mr Clegg, you could ditch all those regulations that use the phantoms of “terror” and “paedophilia” to restrict every honest citizen’s rights to travel and take photos.
If I’m taking pics at my child’s school play or sports day, or on a public beach, it has nothing to do with porn. If I raise my camera in the street, it doesn’t make me a terrorist.
The demonising of such normal behaviour has done a lot to create the damaging “us and them” tone of our society.
So, over a longer time span, has the criminalising of drugs.
Prohibition of alcohol in the USA in 1920 didn’t just not work – it was catastrophic in creating a whole society of organised crime.
The same is true, on a vastly bigger scale, of the near-worldwide ban on many other drugs.
It’s not just ineffective, not just counter-productive – it’s worse than that.
You don’t have to support drug-use to see that the law against it makes things a whole lot worse.
Whether there would be any future in Britain going it alone in making drugs legal is debatable. If it could be done internationally, it would be a very good thing.
The same argument applies just as forcefully to prostitution.
Interestingly, the call to legalise cannabis is the most-backed call so far on the Your Freedom website.
Is there any chance of the government actually listening? What do you think?


I HAVE been engaged in an exchange of poems with the Californian poet Valerie Witte through the auspices of the excellent poetry site Likestarlings. She writes one, I reply with one of my own, she responds, etc. Like any conversation, one person's ideas spark tangential ideas in the other and the whole thing goes in directions neither of you might have predicted. Quite challenging and very enjoyable - and I'm delighted to see that my second response to Val, in the unlikely form of a completely regular sestina, titled re:action / in formation now appears on the home page of the site as the editor's 'featured poem'. Check it out here.
Anyone interested in reading any of my poetry can find links to all that's online here - or see the link at left.

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