Friday, 11 September 2009

What governs governments?

Something of the vacuum at the heart of the present British government has been exposed in two recent issues. The first, which has received global publicity, is the curious freeing of Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, the only convicted person linked to the Lockerbie bombing. Since this action – allegedly on compassionate grounds – took place, it has become widely assumed (and barely denied) that it was linked with a lucrative trade deal with Libya.

A second case, which I only learned about today, is an interesting piece of new legislation. This is the new Vetting and Barring Scheme, in which those who drive other people’s children to sporting events and the like (as well as those who host foreign children) will have to sign up to a registration scheme which will cost them around £60 (or $100) in order for them to be licensed. The motive is of course to deter paedophiles. Now, here of course I have to say – as all commentators on this must say – that I find paedophilia utterly abhorrent and I think that the protection of young people is absolutely vital.

However, there has been widespread criticism of the practicality, efficacy and morality of this. For one, it only picks up those people who have already had convictions or warnings for offences with young people (and vulnerable adults). It does nothing (nor can it do) to prevent such things happening. For another, it is likely to greatly reduce the number of volunteers that there are for such activities; already something of an issue in Britain. And finally, it is all worded so vaguely that it’s difficult to know exactly when a sporadic habit of taking someone’s kids to a football match becomes a regular and notifiable one. Deeper concerns lie in the way that the way that this new scheme will, in conjunction with the existing child protection legislation, result in nearly 12,000,000 people being checked in the UK for working with children; nearly one in four adults. (It is soon going to reach the point where if you haven’t applied for such a form, it will be assumed you have something to hide.) In this, somehow the traditional British legal maxim of innocent until proved guilty seems to have been pushed to one side.

What has driven this current spate of anti-paedophile legislation is public pressure after a small number of appalling and very high profile murders. This pressure has been sustained by the regular whipping up of popular sentiment by the press who delight, in an age of political correctness, in at last having someone, somewhere they can demonise. There is the intoxicating spirit of a witchhunt abroad. Don’t believe me? Apparently 200 case workers will collect information from police, professional bodies and employers, before ruling who is barred, and significantly, they will be allowed to bar people on what is called ‘soft intelligence.’ Heaven preserve us from ‘soft intelligence’; the allegation without a source, the smear without substantiation leading to a judgement that can never be challenged. How can you challenge something that has not formally been given? How can you overturn innuendo? You can imagine the conversation can’t you?  ‘I’m sorry: you’re barred from taking children to a sportsground.’ ‘Why?’ ‘I’m sorry I can’t tell you.’  In fact I daresay this blog will be taken down and put in my file to be used in evidence against me.

Actually, I don’t particularly want to argue the slender merits and considerable demerits of both actions here. What I want to note is that if the Al-Megrahi release was motivated by money, the new legislation is driven simply by popular demand. What is so fascinating and very alarming is that having over the last 30 years shed any moral reliance on the Christian ethic the ship of government is now effectively rudderless in the seas of this world. Without any firm basis of right and wrong the government simply responds to the pull of trade or the push of public opinion. When Bob Dylan sang in Slow Train Coming, ‘Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody’, we assumed that he was referring to us as individuals. He probably was: but states have to serve somebody too.

Have a good week.