Max Hastings, in last Sunday’s Sunday Times, reviewed a book by Cambridge historian Ben Wilson, What Price Liberty. I should say first of all that I have not read the book, although, after reading Mr Hastings’ review I have added it to my to-read list, and it is something in the review itself which I want to address.
According to the review, the book tackles the thorny issue of the balance between liberty and security, and how the twin assaults on individual liberty, from over-zealous security policy on one hand, and the fussing of the nanny state on the other, has moulded us into a risk-averse big brother state within which the liberty of the subject is eroded bit by bit.
This question is clearly as important as it is topical, and I have to say that I concur broadly with the Hastings-Wilson-Benjamin Franklin view that he who would sacrifice essential liberty for a little temporary safety deserves neither safety nor liberty.
The review, however, starts by opining that “One of the most injurious blights to fall upon British society in the 21st century has been that of health and safety”, and it is this with which I want to take issue. Let’s face it, Health and Safety is a pretty easy target. Contempt for it is often bundled together with a distrust of “the nanny state” with its “yuman rights culture”, Euro-sceptic opposition to “meddling” from Brussels and a swiftness to label any and all of the above as “political correctness gone mad”.
In fact, the concepts behind Health and Safety are nothing new. Indeed, the Health and Safety Act is the direct descendant of the Factory and Mines Acts of the mid Nineteenth Century, the very era lauded by Mr Wilson as a gilded age of individual liberty.
Similarly, a great majority of the more progressive legislation enacted in this country over the past 50 years (from the Equal Pay legislation to the Human Rights Act, via the Discrimination Acts) has come from or mirrors European Law.
The erosion of civil liberties is certainly a valid concern, but it seems to me that the risk comes far more from excessive security powers of the state that it does from legislation which is designed, however over-zealously it is enforced, to protect people.
And slagging off Health and Safety is just lazy journalistic short-hand.
So, in conclusion, do buy Mr Wilson’s book and read it, but if you should drop it on your foot on your way home, it’s probably nobody else’s fault but your own.