Britain governed by nannies

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair is often accused of being a “control freak,” meaning someone who places the emphasis on presentation rather than content, but the accusation that he and his colleagues have become obsessed with “political correctness” is closer to the mark.

Words and phrases that were once perfectly acceptable and were not intended or considered as pejorative are condemned and banned from official publications. In this Britain is not unique: Japan too has banned many simple words. In both countries circumlocutions are preferred for “blind,” “deaf,” “dumb” or “cripple.”

In Britain the term “Negro” has to be replaced by “someone of Afro-Caribbean origin” and if anyone inadvertently uses the old phrase “nigger in the woodpile” meaning, to quote the Oxford English dictionary, “hidden cause of trouble or inconvenience” he will be howled down and made to apologize. “Jap” for “Japanese” used to be regarded by Japanese as well as Westerners in the 19th century as perfectly acceptable, but no one would dare to use the term today in public, although it is worth noting that most British people are quite happy to refer to themselves as “we Brits!”

Educated people in Britain are opposed to discrimination on grounds of race, age, gender or sexual orientation, and accept that discrimination should be banned and policed by government appointed commissions, although many people think that too much time and effort is spent in trying to investigate minor allegations of discrimination.

All organizations are now expected to make provision for wheelchair access and disabled toilet facilities despite the relatively few people who may need these facilities. The costs can often be disproportionate to the benefits but to say so would be “politically incorrect.”

It is no longer acceptable to use the word “sex” to mean gender or to refer to homosexuals as queers or other old-fashioned terms. The acceptable word now is “gay.” As a result “Gay” can no longer be used as a given name, short for Gabriel or Gabrielle. Homosexuals or lesbians who live together now have to be referred to as “same-sex” couples and such liaisons can now be legally recognized.

Political correctness seems to extend to almost all aspects of private life as British politicians, with their tendency to react without adequate thought to what they perceive as popular concerns, often seem to behave toward the British public like nannies or nursemaids attempting to discipline the children in their care.

One of the latest examples of government “nannying” is the attempt to curb growing obesity, especially among young people. Obesity is not yet as great a threat to health in Britain as it is in the United States, but health officials are justifiably concerned about the increasing number of diabetics and the effect of obesity on the incidence of heart disease and certain forms of cancer.

Efforts to educate the public about the dangers of consuming too much sugar and salt are justified, as are regulations to force manufacturers to draw attention to the ingredients in fast foods and manufactured items. But the government “nannies” are demanding the appointment of trainers to guide people to adopt better health regimes, including more exercise. They are also pressing for bans on advertisements of “unsuitable” food on television that might be seen by young people.

But the sale of school sports grounds to reduce education costs does not suggest “joined up” government. Nannies like rules and dislike giving children (in this case the general public) the freedom to choose for themselves.

There is a strong case for the view that the health of people working in environments where smoking is permitted can suffer as a result of “passive smoking.” People in such places certainly suffer from watering eyes and have breathing difficulties as well as being affected by the smell of smoking. So smoking is to be banned in offices and all public places where food is served, but not in places where only drink is provided or in private clubs. The distinction seems illogical as there have to be staff to serve drinks in bars where smoking will be permitted.

The government is also justifiably anxious to curb underage drinking and binge drinking. Various regulations are being strengthened to deal with these problems. Yet controls on the hours during which alcoholic drinks can be served are to be relaxed. The government argues — not entirely convincingly — that if people have a longer time in which to get drunk there will be less drunkenness.

Another proposal being pursued is to liberalize gambling and permit the building of casinos. This proposal seems odd when the government deplores the low savings rate and is aware of the damage to families arising from an obsession with gambling.

In line with the government’s adherence to political correctness it has expended an extraordinary amount of parliamentary time on forcing through a ban on hunting with hounds. This piece of illiberal legislation has little or nothing to do with the alleged cruelty to foxes, which are killed by the hounds rather than shot, poisoned or trapped — frequently involving greater cruelty to foxes — which for their part cruelly kill or maim fowl and other birds.

Fox-hunting is seen by Blair’s “babes” — as the youngish women Labour MPs elected with Blair are termed — as a way to having a go at the countryside “toffs.” They think that fox-hunting is a toffs’ sport. Some would like to go on to ban the shooting of game and even fishing with rods, allegedly as being cruel to game birds and fresh-water fish, but basically because these sports are also seen as toffs’ sports.

They also reflect the anticountryside attitude of the Labour Party, whose base is in urban electorates. These attitudes are out of date and unjustified by the facts that show that participants in these sports are not confined to upper-income people but rather are also enjoyed by many who make a living in the countryside by working with horses and hounds. It is inevitable that a lot of police time, which would be better spent in chasing burglars and muggers, will be wasted in the pursuit of political correctness.

Nothing is, of course, to be done to control methods of butchery that conform to Islamic or Jewish rules, despite the fact that it can be argued that these methods cause more suffering to animals than the accepted methods of animal slaughter. Any criticism of such methods might be regarded as incitement to religious hatred, which the government now intends to declare a criminal offense.

Most liberal-minded people disapprove of attacks on other people’s religious beliefs, but how is incitement to religious hatred to be defined? Will any criticism of Islam or Christianity be regarded as incitement to religious hatred?

Instant legislation to meet sudden popular concerns may be politically correct, but it is not sensible law. A significant number of British people, including many who do not support the conservative opposition, think that the present British government has not only become obsessed with political correctness and is far too prescriptive, but also goes about things in an illogical way.