New Britain:
A Regulator's Paradise

by Frank Furedi
Copyright 1998 Dow Jones & Co., Inc.
Wall Street Journal Europe (March 30, 1998)

It is not surprising that Labour's recent budget claims that environmental protection and safety concerns motivated its attack on car owners. Safety has become the fundamental value of the New Britain, perhaps because it can be used to justify almost anything given a sufficiently expansive definition. The meaning of health now seems to encompass virtually every human experience. The recent government green paper "Our Healthier Nation" aims to supplement exhortations to behave correctly--stop drinking, take exercise, drive slowly, don't smoke, eat salads, forget about meat--with an effective system for regulating behavior.

Labour's determination to impose a safe lifestyle on society has reached ludicrous proportions. The outcome of this nannying impulse has been to create the impression that the very act of eating has become a highly dangerous experience. Since last December, when it banned the consumption of beef on the bone, New Labour has helped create a climate where food panic is the norm. In January, the British Medical Association declared that the raw meat in your fridge should be treated as if it is infected and could give you food poisoning. This statement was clearly in line with Health Secretary Frank Dobson's previous advice that even those eating average amounts of meat should "consider a reduction."

In February, the use of raw eggs in restaurant dishes was targeted by the Orwellian-sounding Local Authorities' Coordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards. This body called on the government to consider a ban on the use of raw eggs. A few days later it was announced that ministers planned to ban unpasteurised milk in England, since a fifth of the sample tested by the government's laboratory was deemed to be of an unacceptable quality. With one food panic leading to another, it was only a matter of time before British food production itself became the target. A recent report by the self-described National Consumer Council declared that intensive farming methods in Britain represented a growing risk to the consumer. The report warned of "life-threatening illnesses" and noted that the "risk to consumers is incalculable." Next in line for punishment were American agribusiness interests. The frozen food chain Iceland indicated that its 770 stores will reject food which may have been made with genetically modified soya from the United States.

The recent escalation of the British food panic has coincided with an outbreak of hysteria about the peril of passive smoking. Contrary to all reliable evidence, a government-appointed committee of medical experts declared this month that there was a "definitive link" between a variety of killer diseases and passive smoking. Sensationalist headlines claimed that babies run twice the risk of cot death if their mother smokes and that tens of thousands of non-smokers faced death from environmental smoke. Naturally, the report led to calls for the banning of smoking in public places. It seems that in British political life, regulation has become even more addictive than smoking cigarettes.

The most grotesque manifestation of the regulatory impulse has been New Labour's attempt to stigmatize car ownership. Numerous ministers have indicated that the "car culture" should be curbed. They have argued for imposing new speed limits, taxing firms who provide parking space to their employees and customers, and penalizing people who drive large cars. A few days ago the Broadcasting Standards Commission announced that it was launching an investigation into the BBC's Top Gear motoring program following a complaint by a road safety group that it was setting a bad example to young drivers. Program presenter Jeremy Clarkson was criticized for his all-too-obvious affinity for fast cars. Since cars are increasingly represented as "killing machines," the Advertising Standards Authority has already banned television ads that show fast cars. Last year, the ASA ruled that a Citroen ad was irresponsible on grounds that "the smile on the driver's face would be seen as relating to the enjoyment of unsafe speed." Clearly, it is only a matter of time before New Labour will try to introduce new regulations to slow Britain down.

To his credit, Mr. Clarkson has come out fighting and has offered a robust defense of his right to enjoy a "big, fast and powerful car." Sadly, there are very few other public figures who are prepared to stand up for what they believe. The current obsession with safety seems to have overwhelmed the entire British political class. It is worth noting that one of the final bills passed by the last Conservative government was the Road Traffic Reduction Act. This stigmatization of the car culture has given New Labour a wonderful excuse to raise road taxes.

Likewise, the lack of a forceful opposition to the government's zeal to regulate the production and consumption of food is a worrying symptom of the times. Although an outburst of indignation followed the government ban on sales of T-bone steaks, the opposition has been reluctant to challenge the claim that British food represents a major danger to the population. The fact that British people live longer, lead a healthier life, and eat better food than ever before is rarely acknowledged by public figures. The very mention of a possibility of health risk has the effect of silencing otherwise critical voices.

As a sociologist, what concerns me is that in the contemporary climate, the right of the individual to make choices about how to live one's life is fast becoming an outdated concept. A combination of regulatory fervor and political expediency has created a situation where even the possibility of some unforeseen risk serves to extend the government's authority to make decisions about how we lead our lives. There was a time when risk taking was associated with creativity and enterprise. Today's sad attempt to ban risks has the effect of undermining precisely these human qualities. There is a major health threat facing Britain. The state regulation of everyday life threatens to undermine critical thinking and the moral autonomy of the individual. The real danger is not passive smoking but passive living.

Mr. Furedi is a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury and author of "Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectations."

Material presented on this home page constitutes opinion of the author.
Copyright © 1998 Steven J. Milloy. All rights reserved. Site developed and hosted by WestLake Solutions, Inc.