Thursday, August 25, 2011

Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Sentences without verbs.




Some people were perplexed by Dave "Call Me Tony" Cameron's attempt to draw a line from what-he-calls-health-and-safety to rampaging mobs of poor people stealing plimsolls from shops.

We have all agreed that it's quite silly to require children to wear protective headgear when playing conkers, and the fact that no one does require children to wear protective headgear when playing conkers doesn't make it any less silly, but its quite hard to spot how that sort of things causes a riot. "It says caution, may contain nuts on this packet of peanuts! Quite unnecessarily! I think I shall go and burn down a theater!"  Was his idea that bobbies-on-the-beat couldn't go and club rioters like baby seals (as a certain columnist in a certain paper helpfully put it) because they had to fill out risk-assessment forms first?

Regular readers of this column, estimated to now to be well into double figures, will have had no problem spotting what was going on, and, come to think of it, don't really need to read the rest of this article. But for anyone coming here for there first time:

The right wing propaganda machine is heavily committed to a conspiracy theory in which Health and Safety, and Human Rights are -- along with Global Warming -- more or less synonymous with Political Correctness, and Political Correctness a cover-story for a secret communist plot to bring down Western Civilisation. What all four have in common is that they force people to act against something called Common Sense: indeed, believers in the conspiracy theory hold that Political Correctness means "whatever is contrary to Common Sense." I am sorry to keep banging on about this: but it really does seem to be the central unthink which is driving the far-right's project and Dave's speech about "fighting back" against The Riots is full of it.

He doesn't use the expression "political correctness gone mad" or "cultural marxism" in the speech, but he does directly claim that there are certain things which "you just can't talk about" nowadays. The things you just can't talk about are, of course precisely those things which Prime Ministers have been rabbiting on and on about since at least the time of Robert Walpole. (Note to self: Horace Walpole was someone entirely different.)
"We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said – about everything from  marriage to welfare to common courtesy.

Sometimes the reasons for that are noble – we don’t want to insult or hurt people...

So you can’t say that marriage and commitment are good things – for fear of alienating single mothers.

You don’t deal properly with children who repeatedly fail in school – because you’re worried about being accused of stigmatising them.

You’re wary of talking about those who have never worked and never want to work – in case you’re charged with not getting it, being middle class and out of touch."
So. The Conservative Party have never before talked about children doing badly at school, single parents, the family, good manners or right and wrong but under daring Dave they are jolly well going to start doing so right about now.

Note the passive voice, by the way: you may "be accused" of stigmatising less clever children if you notice that they are doing badly at school; you may "be charged" with being too middle class -- but there is no hint as to who the accuser or the charger might be. Non Specific Man is out to get us.  
To be fair to Cameron -- and just typing those words makes me feel dirty -- his comments on human rights are reasonably nuanced. Human Rights: Good Thing. Some People's Interpretation of Human Rights Act: Bad Thing. If he has got some concrete idea about how a "bill of rights" would differ from a "human rights act" then I'd be happy to listen, or at any rate, read a leading article in the Guardian by people who have listened on my behalf. [*]  I'm sure he didn't remotely want or expect that DAVE DECLARES WAR ON HUMAN RIGHTS headline in the Nasty Express.

Yet even here he can't help drifting into the language of the Conspiracy Theory.

The truth is, the interpretation of human rights legislation has exerted a chilling effect on public sector organisations, leading them to act in ways that fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility.

It would be nice to hear one concrete example of how human rights have made public organisations do nonsensical things things and things which are plain wrong. He doesn't, because there aren't any.

However when it comes to health and safety, there is no nuance:

It is s exactly the same with health and safety – where regulations have often been twisted out of all recognition into a culture where the words 'health and safety' are lazily trotted out to justify all sorts of actions and regulations that damage our social fabric.

Exactly the same as what? Twisted by whom? Trotted out by whom? Damaged in what way? What is a social fabric, in any case?

Of course there is scope for grown ups to disagree about how dangerous a world we care to live in. Dave would presumably be quite happy for his child to lose the odd finger in a woodwork accident; someone else might think it quite sensible to make the teacher think before the lesson about what could go wrong and how to stop it from doing so. But how, forsooth, do we get from "We think there should be a qualified life-saver near places where children go swimming" to "damaging the social fabric" to "burning down shoe shops". 

The language veers toward the mystical. A vague thing -- "human rights" "health and safety" -- has a vague, metaphorical effect -- "corrosion", "chilling", "damaging the fabric" on a vague thing -- "society" (which does not exist but needs to be bigger). He can't give a concrete example of how we are more rusty or colder than we used to be; but he takes for granted that this cold rusty damagedness had something to do with a few hundred cross people causing a lot of damage. None of it makes the slightest sense unless you already believe in a literal Human Rights Brigade working to destroy civilisation by making us all reject common sense.

I don't know to what extent David Cameron believes in the Frankfurt Conspiracy Theory. (Melanie Phillips thinks he's one of those actively working towards the downfall of civilisation, remember.)  But the language -- of a creeping ideological thing that is chewing away at society and will shortly destroy us all -- clearly draws on the same mythology.
David Cameron is not Melanie Phillips., and Melanie Phillips is not Anders Breivik. But I am afraid that moderate right wing lunatic gives spurious credibility to violent right wing lunatics. It's no good being a little bit in favour of human rights, or a little bit skeptical of the idea that health and safety means the end of society as we now know it. You have to denounce the whole fantasy; just like you'd denounce someone who believed in the Procols ofthe Elders of Zion. There is no human rights culture. There are no elf and safety fantatics. There is no political correctness brigade. The Queen is not a telepathic alien lizard. Nothing is eating away at the fabric of society and no-one banned Christmas. Mild mannered politicians who perpetuate fantasy worlds are part of the problem.
 
[*] Surely a British Bill of Rights will either say the same things as the European Human Rights charter, or else different things? If it says the same things, then lawyers who are inclined to bring frivolous cases will be just as able to do so under a Bill of Rights than under a Human Rights Act. If it says different things, then UK citizen will have rights under the European Human Rights charter that they don't have under UK law; which means that they'll be able to be appeal to Strasbourg when they've exhausted the UK legal process, as they did before 1998. Have you thought this through. At all?

[**] Except in so far as "common sense" means "whatever I feel like doing at a particular moment". It is quite possible that Tony-Lite feels frustrated when he wants to grab a quick headline in the Nasty Mail by kicking a scary looking foreigner, possibly one with a prosthetic hand, out of the country and the courts insist on checking the letter of the law and hearing all arguments on both sides. But that's an argument against the whole idea of due process, not against human rights per se.

19 comments:

JWH said...

"Of course there is scope for grown ups to disagree about how dangerous a world we care to live in. Dave would presumably be quite happy for his child to lose the odd finger in a woodwork accident; someone else might think it quite sensible to make the teacher think before the lesson about what could go wrong and how to stop it from doing so."

I thought that the actual disagreement was more along the lines that under H&S Procedures the teacher not only has to 'think' about what could go wrong and stop it but actully write it down. The purpose of the 'writing down' is for the paper to be waved about after Mr Cameron's child has lost his finger to show that it wasn't the teacher's fault, she had indeed thought about stuff beforehand. The cumulative effeect of writing these is to annoy the teacher by doing loads of boring paperwork and annoy the people paying the teacher who now has to spend some of her time doing this sort of thing rather than teaching.

I don't necessarily propose that Mr C is right about any of this, just that the essence of the argument is about the value of the paperwork, not the value of thinking about safety?

Regards

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well then: I suppose my question is; "How do you draw a line from 'people sometimes have to fill out to many forms' " to "We are damaging the very fabric society, and this is causing children to set fire to shopping centers."

Andrew Rilstone said...

...too many forms....

JWH said...

Because right-wing writers cannot resist using any example of the government "on people's backs" as evidence of the imminent imposition of Communism on the free Yeoman of England?

NickPheas said...

OK, here is a health and safety example.
I am a member of a scuba diving club, which shares grounds with various other sports clubs. We have a little compressor to fill our bottles and there is a path one could drive a car along to get to the compressor. We put the path in about ten years ago, it runs along the side of the rugby pitch.
The Rugby Club decided to barricade the path. They announced that they had no choice but to do so because of 'Health and Safety'. The fact that there have been exactly zero accidents in the last 10 years does not mean that their concerns are unhelpful.
Now actually what we have is a spat between two clubs. There are a couple of people recently elected to the rugby club committee who seem to resent other bodies who share ther facilities and so are going to throw their weight about. In the old days we would just say, 'Rugby is being a git', the half dozen other clubs would agree and we'd all move on, in particular we would move our cars on without their being any more accidents than there had been before.
But 'Health and Safety' provides a narrative, a reason for being a git that we can't challenge. So it's carry 30 kilo scuba tanks across a boggy 200 yards, or drive across the cricket pitch...

Andrew Rilstone said...

Just to be clear: are the rugby players enforcing (overzealously) a health and safety rule which actually exists; or are they saying "health and safety" as a mantra, like "because the Bible says so" or "won't somebody think of the children"?

Andrew Rilstone said...

In fact, isn't there a danger that this parses out to "If gits lie about regulations, it's the fault of the regulations?"

Which may be part of what Cameron means, actually: we shouldn't need to write down rules, or even bother with daft ideas like due process and sentencing regulation, because everyone knows (through the magic medium of Common Sense) what they ought to do, and the rest can be shot with watercannons. Is this the same as libertarianism?

Just thinking out loud, really.

Mike Taylor said...

There is another problem with "Health and Safety culture" which is that it can become a substitute for actually doing anything about safety where it counts.

As Exhibit A, I call a friend of mine who must remain anonymous. He works for a large multinational corporation which has an obsessive H&S culture, such that when his office had its Christmas party in 2009 it commenced with a 20-minute H&S lecture. (I am not inclined to believe that this lecture prevented anyone from photocopying their bottoms.)

The large multinational corporation in question is BP. Four months after that party, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, with hilarious consequences.

It seems pretty obvious that the safety effort was being spent in the wrong place. The problem here is one of perception. If you keep giving 20-minute lectures before all your parties, it's probably pretty easy to persuade yourself that you're doing all you can to keep people safe. That rather pointless activity becomes a substitute for actual safety.

Mike Taylor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NickPheas said...

Well there are no regulations imposed on the rugby club. Like I said, H&S provides a narrative for them to act like gits, and apart from the fact that they're bigger than us (in every sense) its an invincible narrative.
To reject it is supposedly to support a desire to hit children with our 4x4s. H&S will protect the kiddies. Don't you want the kiddies to be healthy and safe?

Richard Worth said...

While elf and safety may be useful for keeping small children from falling into blast furnaces and ruining our international competativeness, and Human Rights was largely a gift from us to Europeans who thought that Westphalian soveriegnty made it lawful to send Jews to gas chambers, the underlying bugbears may be insurance and litigation. If you have ambulance-chasing lawyers claiming to stand up for the little guy against big organisations who can just claim on insurance, and insurers who will either raise premiums or wriggle through a loophole, you can understand organisations becoming very cautious. Until about ten years ago the Government had Crown Immunity, which meant that police, prisons, armed forces etc were not subject to H&S, in part because they were doing jobs that most private companies would have found too risky, and since they repealed this Government agencies may have become more cautious.

Salisbury said...

A client I work with (Australian) has an invariant policy of starting every meeting with one of those present giving the others a health and safety tip.

When I say 'every meeting', I don't mean every meeting about health and safety, I mean, you have a quick catch-up about buying a nice pressie for Susan who's going on maternity leave, you start it with a health and safety tip.

I am not sure if anyone is expected to act on the tip, but that's probably beside the point.

It is inarguable that this is a good thing for all concerned, for even though it is an incredibly naff way to start a meeting, all those safety tips could one day stop someone's big toe being chopped off.

When somebody, even a politician, says, 'Whatever happened to common sense?' what I think he really means but can't say is, 'The costs outweigh the benefits.'

Thing is, the marginal cost--even if it is yet another bloody safety tip--seems trivial in comparison to the (potential) benefit. After all, you only get two big toes, but you can always spare thirty seconds to listen to a new health and safety tip.

'Common sense' is I think what tells us that there is something daft going on here, that each safety tip is of infinitesimal benefit, and that the already long list of other, far more sensible safety procedures are doing 99.99% of the toe-removal prevention. 'Common sense' also gives us a little wiggle room, some plausible deniability should the worst happen and a toe come off, whereas, 'I think the time lost, general cringing and heroic stupidity of starting every meeting with a made-up safety tip far outweighs the benefit in toes un-lost.'

(Of course the gentle reader may feel that every toe is sacred and that only a rank libertarian with an Ayn Rand fetish could suggest otherwise, but once again that is neither here nor there.)

Salisbury said...

Urk--that second last paragraph should read:

'Common sense' is I think what tells us that there is something daft going on here, that each safety tip is of infinitesimal benefit, and that the already long list of other, far more sensible safety procedures are doing 99.99% of the toe-removal prevention. 'Common sense' also gives us a little wiggle room, some plausible deniability should the worst happen and a toe come off, whereas, 'I think the time lost, general cringing and heroic stupidity of starting every meeting with a made-up safety tip far outweighs the benefit in toes un-lost' does not.

Some bloke on the internet said...

You asked for a concrete example of Human rights causing people to do daft things. I read about this Cameron article on the BBC website and it mentioned a roof bound bad person being given a KFC meal. I found this article - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1520534/KFC-meal-ensures-siege-mans-rights.html .

To me that sounds mad. You can't starve someone but the police are not starving him - he can come down and eat.

Or would you say that this situation occurred because of the fear of human rights rules rather than actual real life human rights rules? It's hard to be sure as I'd have to read some bill of human rights to find out!

Andrew Rilstone said...

Martin Kettle from the Guardian checked the KFC story with Gloucester Police: "What happened was nothing to do with the Human Rights Act" they said "It was a negotiation. He said he would come down if we gave him food and drink."

The KFC story is to human rights as straight bananas are to Euroscteptics, goggles for conkers are to elf-and-safety conspiracists, and Winterval is to PC racists: a factoid which everyone knows is true, but ain't.

Some bloke on the internet said...

Ah - that sounds more plausible.

Though we've got two stories from news papers quoting police representatives that contradict each other. You're left to pick the story that best fits with your world view - or assume the later one has to be correct because er... it's later.

You can see how these conspiracy theories get going.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Sentences without verbs.

Am I alone in thinking that 70% of that would be a blueprint for utopia?

JWH said...

Which two would you take out of the list Sam?

Sam Dodsworth said...

There is no crime in utopia, but there are verbs.