Picture credit: by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The Conservative love affair with petty prohibitionism

How much time has been wasted on trivial legislation?

In 2018, Dr Lisa Cameron, an MP from the Scottish National Party, called for the consumption of dog meat to be banned in the United Kingdom. There was no evidence that anyone in Britain was eating dogs and she was surely correct when she said that “I do not believe the general public would approve of the practice at all”. The sale of dog meat has been banned for many years, but Dr Cameron was concerned about a loophole that allows people to eat their own dog if the animal has been humanely killed. Appalled at the prospect of this hypothetical problem, she urged the government to “take action to nip it in the bud”. The Conservative minister Sir Alan Duncan immediately rallied to the cause, saying: “There is no need in the modern world for this disgusting habit.” Like Dr Cameron, he said the government “should nip it in the bud”. 

Somewhat surprisingly, the campaign gathered steam. Jim Shannon MP said that “it is obscene, gross and immoral that someone could, technically speaking, cook a dog and eat it”. Following such newspaper headlines as “Horror of DOG EATING in the UK – Theresa May urged to act” (Daily Express), questions were asked in both Houses of Parliament and the House of Commons library prepared a 13 page briefing on the issue in advance of an hour long debate in the House of Commons. The debate was triggered by a Ten-minute Rule Bill from the Conservative MP Bill Wiggin who admitted that “there is no evidence that dogs are eaten in the UK” but that Britain should be “setting an example to the world”. By the summer of 2019, Michael Gove had reportedly drafted legislation to make the possession of dog meat a criminal offence. Alas, the clampdown on theoretical dog-eating fizzled out when civil servants decided that a ban would be “culturally insensitive”

In its small way, this episode sums up the last 14 years of government. The sheer inanity of it, the entanglement in trivia, the virtue signalling, the use of legislation to “send a message”, the inevitable involvement of Michael Gove and the whole thing falling apart for fear of seeming racist. It is a canned version of the whole era. Unserious politicians in serious times will do anything to avoid grasping the nettle. Everything is displacement.

In April, Rishi Sunak announced that he would be amending the Criminal Justice Bill to make assaulting shop workers a separate criminal offence. The crime will be punishable by up to six months imprisonment or an unlimited fine, which is exactly the same as you can get for common assault, so what was the point? The government had already rejected the idea a few months earlier, saying “we do not think more legislative change is required”. Assaults on shop workers rose by 50 per cent between 2021/22 and 2022/23 according to the British Retail Consortium, and it is doubtful whether even Rishi Sunak believes that restating the law will make any difference. No matter, he said, it was all about “sending a message”.

It could be argued that governments have enough time on their hands to deal with the small issues along with the big. It could also be argued that a government that intends to “stop the boats” and decarbonise the entire economy within 26 years cannot be faulted for ambition. The problem is that the political class only have two settings. When they are not being incredibly petty, they are being wildly over-ambitious. And since their grandest schemes — “levelling up”, halving obesity, controlling the temperature of the planet, etc. — are not realistic, they remain meaningless aspirations while the actual achievements of government end up being things like taxing carrier bags and banning people from keeping monkeys as pets. 

Meanwhile, the stuff in the middle — the normal business of government, the provision of services to taxpayers — are either never addressed or are addressed in the most inconsequential way. Everybody knows what the big issues facing the country are. We might each prioritise them differently, but they include the cost of housing, childcare and energy, the productivity problem, the ageing society, illegal immigration, the national debt, a hopeless health service and a crumbling national infrastructure. None of these are fleeting problems. They have all been getting worse for years. No new reservoir has been built in the UK since 1991 and three billion litres of water are lost through leaky pipes every day. Rather than do anything about the absurdity of water shortages on a rain-drenched island, the government has proposed banning power showers. On housing, the government has come up with an endless slew of policies — 99 per cent mortgages, 50 year mortgages, shared ownership, banning no-fault evictions, taxing second homes — everything, in fact, except the one thing that will actually work: raising the supply of housing above demand.

As inadequate as these policies clearly are, they at least exist in the same postcode as a legitimate problem. More often than not, luxury policies are announced almost at random. Since 2010, legislative diarrhoea has been responsible for bans on plastic straws, branded cigarette packaging, all psychoactive substances that are not specifically exempt, packs of ten cigarettes, menthol cigarettes, fracking, fixed-odds betting terminals, microbeads, wild animals in travelling circuses, and poppers. The government has promised to ban so many things that it is in a race against time to prohibit peat compost, plastic sauce sachets, single use plates, disposable vapes, gay conversion therapy, wet wipes, the sale of tobacco to people born after 2008, the sale of smartphones to people aged under 16 and plastic forks before the next election. Bans on wood-burning stoves, drivers aged under 25 taking passengers in a car and the sale of energy drinks to children seem to have run out of steam and will be left for the next Labour government to introduce, along with a legislated-but-never-introduced ban on advertising “junk food” and a largely pointless bottle deposit return scheme.

No one is keener on the trivial knee-jerk ban than the hyper-active Michael Gove whom Tom Slater has described as “the minister for everything”. When the history of these wasted years is written, the DEFRA press release headlined “Gove takes action to ban plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds” will deserve at least a footnote. It was Gove who led the charge in banning house coal, laughing gas and the sale of antique ivory. It is Gove who wants to ban fixed term rental contracts — misleadingly described as “no fault evictions’” It was Gove’s idea to introduce a bottle deposit scheme. After failing to ban the possession of dog meat, Gove went on to ban the third party sale of cats and dogs. Among the things Gove has reportedly wanted to ban but has not yet found time for are artificial lawns, scented candles and boiling lobsters. Five more years!

There is something almost heroic about the government’s dogged fixation with trivia during turbulent political times. Four years of Brexit chaos followed by two years of COVID-19 followed by spiralling inflation, war in Europe and a revolving door of prime ministers were not enough to stop the political class sweating the small stuff. On the contrary, crises created more demand for deflection and distractions. In July 2020, with the UK near the top of the international league table for COVID-19 deaths, Boris Johnson announced a ban on supermarkets displaying food deemed high in fat, sugar or salt at the end of their aisles. In March 2022, with the Partygate scandal beginning to eat him alive, he announced plans to regulate football.

At times, the deflection borders on the pathological. The murder of David Amess MP by Ali Harbi Ali in 2021 was immediately followed by demands for a ban on people posting anonymously on social media, a non sequitur so bizarre that it can only be explained by MPs suffering the psychic shock of realising that islamists would not stop at killing kids at pop concerts but also wanted to kill them. Some good could come out of the tragedy, suggested Conservative MP Mark Francois, if the government were to “toughen up” the Online Safety Bill so that people on Facebook could no longer accuse local planning decisions of being “a brown envelope job”. 

The case of Abdul Ezedi, who inflicted horrific injuries on a woman and a child with alkali in January, raised glaring questions about the asylum system. Ezedi, a Afghan national, had entered the UK illegally on the back of a lorry in 2016, had his asylum application turned down in 2017 but was not deported, was convicted of a sex offence but was not imprisoned and unsuccessfully appealed his asylum claim in 2018. Still allowed to stay in the country, he conned a vicar into believing that he had converted to Christianity despite getting basic questions about the faith wrong and was granted asylum on his second appeal in 2020. The case raised serious questions about systematic government failure, all of which were ducked by the political class. According to Caroline Nokes MP (Con) and Bell Ribeiro-Addy (Lab) who appeared on Newsnight with Kirsty Walk the day after the attack, the real issue was “microagressions” towards women.

This systemic addiction to changing the subject means that nothing useful ever gets done. Small-c conservatives sometimes ask why large-c Conservatives are not spending their last months in government passing legislation that will push the country to the right and make life more difficult for an incoming Labour government. The answer is (a) they don’t want to, and (b) they haven’t got time because Parliament is clogged up with things like regulating rickshaws in London. On 19 March, the Football Governance Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons to make good on a promise made by Boris Johnson two years earlier to deflect from Partygate. The following day saw the first reading of the Tobacco and Vapes Bill to make good on a promise made by Rishi Sunak in September 2023 to deflect from everything.

When they reflect on their legacy from the opposition benches next year, Tory MPs will be able to boast that although no new nuclear power station has opened since 1995, it is now against the law to use a credit card to buy a lottery ticket. More than six million people will be on NHS waiting lists but at least every child will have to learn maths until they are 18. After decades of deliberation, Heathrow airport will still have no third runway, but it will be illegal to “induce” a cat to follow you down the street. They will console themselves with the knowledge that although they were not always competent in their years in power, at least they were busy.

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

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

Critic magazine cover