From smacking to fracking, the enthusiasm among MSPs for imposing bans should be a worry for us all, argues Scott Macnab.
The prospect of a ban on parents smacking their children looks poised to provide the country’s latest battleground between the personal freedom of individual Scots and the rule of a benevolent, but ultimately controlling, state. Since the onset of devolution parties of all political hues have shown themselves all too ready to go down the prohibition route as a fallback when it comes to delivering policy. It’s a simple solution and is made to seem an obvious approach by supporters keen to see some kind of behaviour or other done away with.
Smoking, fracking, GM crops and offensive chanting at football matches have all been banned by Holyrood and legislation will come before MSPs next year to introduce the smacking ban with Nicola Sturgeon pledging to give her MSPs a free vote on the issue.
It will probably pass and brings Scotland into line with most European countries.
But is the wider erosion of personal liberty really improving the lot of society?
The smoking ban introduced by the last Labour/Liberal Democrat executive marked the first shift in this direction. This was easy to justify. Scotland was the sick man of Europe and action was needed to address chronic rates of heart disease and cancer. I can remember attending one of the many nationwide roadshows with then health minister Tom McCabe accompanied by a panel of doctors in Aberdeen delivering passionate endorsements of the ban. They were the ones, they insisted, who were on the frontline and having to deal with the consequences of the current approach and the heartbreaking impact it was having on families.
The ban was initially restricted to enclosed public spaces and aimed at protecting Scots from the impact of passive smoking. The concern for libertarians seems to be that, after extending it to cars, academics and campaigners are now calling for it to cover individual homes. So start with a limited ban, but a process of incremental shift sees it widely extended.
The great libertarian thinker John Stuart Mill, whose father James was a Church of Scotland minister from Logie Pert in Angus, reasoned that the state should only lay down legal restrictions on people’s behaviour to protect others from harm. He rejected “paternalistic” interventions to save people from themselves.
But the prospect of banning people from lighting up in their homes seems to shift in this direction, although campaigners may argue it is about protecting children who may be affected.
If ministers move on it, this would mark a new staging post in the role government plays in the lives or ordinary Scots. That push to ban has been dutifully taken up by the SNP. And although a seemingly simple solution, they don’t always work.
The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was aimed at bringing an end to the national embarrassment and shame of sectarian chanting at Old Firm games. But it appears to have succeeded only in alienating football fans and criminalising many young men.
It certainly hasn’t stopped the same old songs being belted out at these matches. It also raises profound questions about freedom of expression.
Advocates of individual liberty say that living in an open society means we must be prepared to be offended - it’s the price of freedom.
Dr Kieran Oberman, an expert in political philosophy at Edinburgh University, admitted the football laws are a “really complicated” issue from the perspective of individual liberty.
“It doesn’t cause physical harm in the way that smacking or pollution does - but at the same time clearly people can be severely affected by what other people say to them and how people behave,” he said.
But unpleasant chants don’t amount to direct incitements to violence, which is generally the acid test of free speech when gauging if the state should step in.
Most recently the SNP came under fire over the decision to ban fracking in Scotland. It was clearly aimed at assuaging the country’s highly vocal environmental lobby, but in many respects the decision seemed to defy all logic.
Nicola Sturgeon insisted it was all about tackling climate change. But the day before her energy minister Paul Wheelhouse announced the ban in Parliament, the First Minister was in Aberdeen officially opening the new oil and gas technology centre which is aimed at extending the life of the North Sea and all the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that will eventually bring to the atmosphere. And of course Scotland’s biggest industrial site at Grangemouth is largely powered by fracked gas which is shipped over from the US.
A separate ban on GM crops in Scotland was similarly controversial after it emerged this was undertaken without any official scientific advice. It was all about protecting Scotland’s reputation for food. It can only be hoped that the country’s once-towering reputation for scientific excellence remains untarnished. In both cases, the issue of “externalities” – the potentially harmful impact of these activities on Scots – was used by ministers to over come libertarian concerns.
In fairness, Scotland is a relatively free and open society. Many modern developed nations don’t allow citizens to travel freely, to use social media sites, while some Middle East states don’t even allow women to drive. Singapore still operates a ban on chewing gum.
And anyway, it seems the vexed question of civil liberties is no longer restricted to us humans, as MSPs are about to discover. The Scottish Parliament will pass legislation in the next few months which will ban wild animals from travelling circuses. The fact that no such circuses with such animals travel to Scotland any more appears to be neither here nor there. But even here it seems some animals are more equal than others. Traditional ”wild” beasts like lions, tigers and elephants are to be protected – but poor old “domestic” creatures like horses and even budgies lose out. Even in the animal kingdom, it seems individual liberty only goes so far.