Picture Credit: Flashpop/Getty Images
Artillery Row

How do you define a party anyway?

Downing street was caught in a trap of its own making

The fate of the nation is in the hands of Sue Gray, the Second Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office. She is deliberating on the definition of a party. 

“Why do you need to seek guidance over the regulations?” goes the cry. “Surely common sense will tell you if an event you are attending is a work meeting or a party?” 

But that takes up to a much broader issue. Regulations usually have nothing much to do with common sense. Common sense implies discretion, adapting to unforeseen circumstances. Regulations are prescriptive and specific. That detail can provide necessary protection for justice. Otherwise it might allow arbitrary use of state power. Officialdom could interpret the rules as it deemed expedient. 

A year ago the public debate raging was how you define a meal

So how would you legally distinguish between a staff meeting for work and a social staff meeting? After all the chortling has died down it is not so easy. If there was catering? If it took place outside regular working hours? But if staff were being summoned for a lunchtime meeting or to come in early for a breakfast meeting or stay late for an evening meeting would that make the meetings any more jolly than being held at 11am? 

Why should there be a ban on offering refreshments at such meetings? If mineral water and coffee are allowed then why not wine or beer? It would be irrelevant so far as the risk of getting covid is concerned. Would who was paying for or providing such provisions be decisive? A suggestion that you bring your own sandwiches to an office gathering might suggest the employer showed a lack of generosity of spirit – but would not, in itself, make the occasion a social one. 

Supposing the business premises had an outdoor space that was used for the staff meeting? That was positively encouraged under the covid guidance. The more ventilation the better. 

Could formality be the definition? If the assembled staff were in more than one group would that prove it was for social rather than business purposes? Hardly conclusive. 

To acknowledge such complications is not to defend the Government over the terrible mess it has got itself embroiled in over the parties. Rather it is to condemn it over imposing such damaging, inhumane and unrealistic rules in the first place. The truth is gradually dawning on people that the lockdowns were offensive on principle and counterproductive in practice. It would have been much better to have provided full information of the risks and relied on personal responsibility rather than infantilising us. 

A year ago the public debate raging was how you define a meal. Was a Scotch Egg a “substantial meal” or a starter? The answer was important for many pubs seeking to operate within the law but to avert bankruptcy.

Then we had all the minutia about “non-essential shops” and key workers. The question at one stage was: “Why can hairdressers open but not nail salons?” Another was: “Why can I visit a bingo hall but not a casino?” Then there was: “Why cinemas but not gyms?” 

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

At one stage branches of Tesco in Wales would sell bottles of vodka as “essential” but ban customers from buying tampons as not essential. – the Welsh Government insisted its guidance had been misinterpreted. 

The coronavirus rules are merely the latest example of red tape being applied in a perverse manner. 

In the 1950s, a Conservative MP Sir Gerald Nabarro would often challenge the way Purchase Tax was applied. For example, door knockers were taxed but nutcrackers were not. Sometimes manufacturers of nutcrackers would drill a couple of holes in their products so they could officially be sold as door knockers. Sir Gerald asked a hapless Treasury: “How does he justify the invidious distinction between a door-knocking nutcracker and a nut-cracking door-knocker?” 

Once I was investigating the number of artworks that local authorities owned and kept in storage. One municipal information officer replied that he was anxious to comply with my request but he had a “query” that I would need to first resolve: “What is art?” 

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? These are the matters that Sue Gray must agonise over while the Government is on hold to see what she concludes. 

It goes beyond her remit to consider whether all these awful rules should have been imposed in the first place. But is it too much to hope that some of her fellow officials might reflect on the wider lesson? Greater clarity and consistency probably could be achieved. But if the state is going to meddle into the tiniest details of how we lead our lives then the outcome will never be smooth or harmonious. Snitching, denials and recriminations are sure to follow. Our rulers will not be exempt and nor should they. If the consequence leaves them in some discomfort then perhaps they should exercise more restraint about bossing us around in future.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover