Allan Massie: Airstrip One paved with good intentions

Whistle-blowing is encouraged, particularly in organisations like the NHS. Picture: Kate Chandler
Whistle-blowing is encouraged, particularly in organisations like the NHS. Picture: Kate Chandler
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Appointing child guardians is just one more way the state is attempting to turn us all into our own Big Brothers, writes Allan Massie

Socialism as we used to know it is dead in Britain and western Europe. It is 20 years since Tony Blair expunged Clause 4 from the Labour Party’s constitution. Nobody now talks of taking control of the “commanding heights of the economy”, even though you might argue that – these commanding heights now being the banks and other denizens of the financial sector – control is more desirable than ever. But it ain’t going to happen.

Likewise, the idea of a planned economy is dead as mutton. Nobody is going to come up with a Soviet-style Five-Year Plan or even with the somewhat nebulous sort of “National Plan” which George Brown unveiled half a century ago (after, if I remember rightly, leaving it in a London taxi).

Yet, if the idea of state control of the economy has been discredited, and the state has accordingly pulled back from its attempt to manage economic life, it has been advancing in other areas; extending its influence, invading the home, interfering in family life.

Nowhere is this more evident than here in Scotland, with the SNP government’s plan to provide every child with a minder – a plan which met with surprisingly little opposition in the Scottish Parliament.

Now of course the intention is good. The intention is always good when the state extends its tentacles. There are, we all know, failing families. There are children who are neglected and others who are abused. There are some who are, quite simply, being brought up badly.

Society, as represented by the state, has a duty to care for them. It must not shirk its responsibilities. And so on. Nevertheless, even if you accept this, and, in doing so brush aside the knowledge that the state’s own record in child protection is not exactly unblemished, you may still think that the appointment of a guardian for every child is a step too far, representing an unwarranted interference in family life.

It would be no surprise if it is challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, for, as one of our readers, Michael Calwell, pointed out in an excellent letter published in yesterday’s paper, “the principle of parental authority is enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights”, which guarantees to all the right to family life.

This right was deemed important, and this principle clearly stated in the convention, precisely because the dictatorships of the Thirties, both fascist and communist, saw in the autonomy of the family a challenge to the authority of the state. They sought to subvert the family, because the family is by its nature subversive of state power.

It always has been a real and very human rival to the abstract power of states, as Ferdinand Mount argued in his admirable book The Subversive Family.

Strip the family of its autonomy, as this measure of the Scottish Parliament will do, and the power of the state is enhanced, its ability to exercise control over every aspect of private life extended.

The intention of the measure may be good, but, as the proverb has it, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the implication of the measure is that children are the property of the state. It represents state socialism in a new guise.

There are other examples. We have recently been encouraged to snoop on our neighbours, to report any suspicion that a child is being ill-treated, or that people may be claiming benefits to which they are not entitled or “cheating” the taxman by paying cash to tradesmen in the knowledge that this transaction may not be recorded.

Once again, you may argue that the intention is good, that we are being urged to act as good citizens. But whatever the intention, the consequences breed distrust and resentment, encouraging malicious reporting.

The state’s “good citizen” may be a very bad neighbour. George Orwell once wrote about the ordinary person’s dislike of a Nosey Parker, but our state is urging us all to become just that; prying into the lives of our neighbours, always in the name of the “public interest”.

This is the sort of thing that went on in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, where those who spied and sneaked on their neighbours were honoured and rewarded by the state.

Another example of the new “ethical public-spirited socialism” is the encouragement of what is called “whistle-blowing”.

No doubt it is often right, may even be a duty, for people who work in an organisation such as the NHS to draw attention to wrong-doing and to mistakes which have been covered up. Yet the encouragement of whistle-blowing may do more harm than good, for it will foster distrust and give opportunities to the malicious. Imagine a school in which teachers are encouraged to spy on their colleagues and report any who may be thought to have stepped out of line.

Is such a school likely to be a happy well-functioning place?

Children have an innate sense of justice. Indeed, this is often keener in childhood than in adult life, when the justice of the child‘s common cry “it‘s not fair“ has been tempered by our experience of the realities of the world.

Yet the abhorrence of the sneak, which is also natural to the child, is something we shouldn‘t lose either. When the state encourages the practice of informing, we should resist.

The appointment of a state-approved minder for every child is a repulsive idea, but it is only an extreme example of the extension of state-power, a power which assumes rights over individuals and families that few of us would grant it of our free will. It represents an attack on the autonomy of the family and therefore a curtailment of liberty.

The implication of the new socialism is that we are all, ultimately, the property of the state which has arrogated to itself the right to order our lives according to its precepts.

The assumption may be presented to us as benevolent, but, whatever the intention, the consequences are likely to be as nasty in practice as the subjection of individuals and families to the state is deplorable to anyone who values freedom.