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The Great Repeal Bill

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Legal and political trends in the United Kingdom often parallel or precede ones within the United States. For example, the politically correct crusades against smoking and child obesity raged in Britain prior to jumping the Atlantic.

A particularly interesting trend is currently unfolding in the UK and, for once, its spread might bring welcomed change. The new coalition government is pushing what it calls a Freedom or Great Repeal Bill. In the Queen’s Speech of May 2010 — a speech written by the government but read by the monarch at Parliament’s opening session — Queen Elizabeth stated, “Legislation will be brought forward to restore freedoms and civil liberties, through the abolition of Identity Cards and repeal of unnecessary laws.”

The new coalition government has pledged to “roll back the State, reducing the weight of government imposition on citizens that has increased in recent years through legislation and centralised programmes.” In short, the government intends to start reversing some aspects of the nanny state.

Before taking a closer look at the Great Repeal Bill under discussion, however, several caveats are necessary along with some background.

First, the background.

A May 2010 general election in the UK resulted in a hung Parliament with the most seats going to the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, which formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg. Cameron is currently the prime minister of the UK; Clegg is the deputy prime minister. The roles fall roughly into the American categories of president and vice president but the UK deputy exerts considerably more control and influence than an American vice president, who can be largely decorative.

The Labour Party had been in power since 1997, first under Tony Blair and then under Gordon Brown. Many factors caused Labour to lose support, including a devastated economy and an unpopular war in Iraq. Another factor was the huge growth of government under Labour which was accompanied by a flood of nanny state legislation that caused grassroots grumbling. A sampling of the regulations imposed indicates the depth and breadth of government’s petty intrusion into the daily life of a Brit:

  • The heat of bathwater: it is a criminal offense to sell a bath or bath taps that supplies water hotter than 48 degrees.
  • Shopping on Sunday: trading laws restrict how long a business may be open on Sunday.
  • Sale of goldfish to children: it is to sell a goldfish to anyone under 14-years-old, with harsh penalties being imposed.illegal.
  • Music license: pubs need a license to have live music, even that played on a guitar by a local musician
  • Marriage venue laws: In England and Wales, you must marry at a Register Office or a state-approved marriage venue.
  • Anti-home DYI laws: for example, it is illegal to do your own minor electrical work, like adding a socket in your own home.
  • Garbage recycling laws: trash bins have been implantedwith 2.6 million microchips to ensure recycling compliance and collect huge finesSome of the intrusions have not been so petty. This is especially true of the ones justified in the name of anti-terrorism. For example, a decryption law requires a citizen to give up encryption keys under threat of a jail sentence for refusing. “Control orders” allow the police to de facto arrest people on “suspicion” (sometimes they are indefinitely confined to their homes) without having to declare any charges or provide other due process.The caveats:The coalition government is most definitely not pro-freedom at its root.

    The Queen’s Speech of May 2010 reiterated the government’s strong anti-immigration policy and promised “to tackle alcohol-related violence and anti-social behaviour.” Britain already has one of the most restrictive policies on alcohol in the Western world. “Anti-social behaviour” is currently handled through Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which are civil orders against people who engage in a wide range of activities including noise pollution, busking, loitering, or littering.

    Thus, even though the coalition should be applauded for being adamant about scrapping the UK’s compulsory national identity card and national ID registry, they are not doing so on libertarian grounds. Brendan O’Neill of the alternate news site Spiked describes such actions as “less a rallying cry for a new, more liberated way of organising society than a snake-like shedding of jobs that they no longer feel capable of executing.”

    In all probability, the coalition is pandering to public backlash against the petty intrusion of a Nanny State, all the while being cognizant of the fact that it cannot afford to implement all the legislation its predecessors had passed. Nevertheless, a pandering that increases privacy rights and civil liberties would be a welcomed change.

    If the coalition government follows through on promises to roll back legislation that established a widespread DNA database and to restrict the much-abused ability of local councils to conduct surveillance on community members, then “good” will be done whatever the underlying motives.

    The current evolving bill undoubtedly has roots in similar legislation that was proposed in a book entitled The Plan: 12 Months to Renew Britain written by Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, which argued for openness in politics, business-friendly policies, deregulation, and more direct democracy. The bill was to be a collaborative effort between politicians and average citizens with the hope that eliciting opinions from the latter would both ground the legislative in daily realities and contribute to its popularity.

    Thus, the coalition has established a website entitled “Your Freedom.” Of the site, Clegg stated, “We are calling for your ideas on how to protect our hard won liberties and repeal unnecessary laws. And we want to know how best to scale back excessive regulation that denies businesses the space to innovate. We’re hoping for virtual mailbags full of suggestions. Every single one will be read, with the best put to Parliament. It is a radically different approach. One based on trust. Because it isn’t up to government to tell people how to live their lives.”

    Brendan O’Neill counter-explains, “Presenting himself as part John Stuart Mill, part Uncle Sam, the Lib-Con deputy PM Nick Clegg last week launched his Your Freedom initiative for which he NEEDS YOU to help make Britain a ‘less intrusive, more open society.’” You log on to the Your Freedom website, propose which nannying New Labour laws and other unnecessary legislation should be fed into the shredding machine of history, and who knows, says Clegg, “Some of your proposals could end up making it into bills that we bring before parliament.” The ultimate aim, in Cleggspeak, is to “restore Britain’s traditions of freedom and fairness.”

    Whatever motives underlie “Your Freedom,” the site provides a fascinating glimpse into the average Brit’s political reality, into the street politics of Britain. Chris Quigley, a self-described e-democracy evangelist, designed the site. In a June interview, Quigley admitted to some problems with the open dialog — for example, the man who complained about being unable to marry his horse or the poster who wished to repeal the Laws of Thermodynamics. But the overall functioning appears to be a success. There are impressive number of posts and of people who both comment upon and rate the contributions of others. At the time of Quigley’s interview, the highest-rated measure was a “call to scrap the law that says schools must hold collective worship” and the lowest-rated one was to “bring back the death sentence.”

    In personally browsing the site, I was struck by how many of the entries are well-reasoned, civil, and practical.

    A post on repealing the Digital Economy Act is typical. It reads, “The Digital Economy Act was pushed through the parliament in the washup by the previous administration. It was a bill that was lobbied for extensively, by money-concerned corporations, with little to none of the ISPs having to enforce the Act being consulted. It should be repealed unconditionally” for “two reasons. 1. Misguided bill that will not combat the issues that it claims to. Puts unnecessary strain on ISPs that do not wish to enforce the law. 2. To stand up to these lobby groups and say ‘No, we are not going to do things because big business tells us to.’”

    Libertarians in the United States should keep a close watch on the progress of this Great Repeal Bill. This democratic process — as flawed as it may be — allows for the voice of reason to speak loudly.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).