Politics & Policy

The Rule of Petty Bureaucrats

What will political correctness come up with next? Look to Britain.

London – Americans can’t really snigger about political correctness in other countries too much. After all, this week a six-year-old Colorado boy was accused of sexual harassment for kissing a fellow student on the hand. He was suspended and the incident will be entered on his record.

But a three-day trip to Britain has convinced me that the country that gave the world Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and free trade has gone far beyond us in kowtowing to political correctness. (Or is the use of “kowtowing” now impermissible?)

The papers here this week were full of the story of Tracey Trigg, a 51-year-old social worker in Lincolnshire, who was twice barred from buying wine at a supermarket because she was accompanied by her children. On the first occasion she was with her 24-year-old son, Josh, and then with both Josh and her 13-year-old daughter, Ella. Both had gone with her to help her carry her Christmas shopping home. Since they had just strolled to the store from home, neither child was carrying full ID.

Trigg was furious at the nanny-state behavior. “There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that I am old enough to buy wine and beer. These are legal products. It is not like I was trying to buy a caged wild animal,” she told the Daily Mail. “Why does a supermarket or the state feel they can tell me whether or not I can buy products that are legal?”

Asda, the supermarket chain that barred her purchase, defended its policy of giving cashiers discretion to refuse to sell alcohol to anyone accompanied by a minor, saying that while it may appear “heavy-handed” it is necessary because the company’s cashiers are “personally responsible” under British law if they sell alcohol of any kind to anyone who passes it on to someone under the age of 18. They could be handed an on-the-spot $130 fine and prosecuted.

Trigg’s case is far from the only one. Three months ago, Charles Brown, age 50, was blocked from buying whisky because he couldn’t prove he was an adult. The month before a mother with a broken hand was told she couldn’t buy alcohol because her 17-year-old daughter was helping her pack her groceries. 

Britain is about to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, an event that began a catastrophic slide downwards in British liberties, both civil and economic. It’s hard to remember just how free the world was 100 years ago. The late historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote in his English History 1914–45 that:

Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission . . . The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913–14, or rather less than 8 per cent of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizens from eating adulterated foods or contracting certain infectious diseases.

Today, of course, government in Britain and elsewhere never tires of trying to shape our lives from above, telling us what we should think, and seeking ever-greater powers to regulate our behavior.

But when it comes to immigration policy, it appears Britain can’t summon the will to regulate who it allows to live in the country. The same week Tracey Trigg was denied the right to buy wine, a court tribunal reversed the government’s decision to deport Trenton Oldfield back to Australia. Last year, he had brazenly disrupted the 158-year-old University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge. Oldfield, a 37-year-old graduate of one of Australia’s poshest private high schools who is now a resident alien in Britain, said he swam in front of the boats in order to protest elitism and inequality in British society.

The police were not amused, and Oldfield was jailed for seven weeks. They then moved to have him deported back to Australia as “undesirable.” But Oldfield appealed to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal on the grounds that if he left he couldn’t possibly take his Indian wife, Deepa, or his daughter back to Australia because his compatriots there were “passive aggressive” racists. “Australia to Deepa . . . is a particularly racist country,” he told the tribunal. “I don’t think I could put either Deepa or my child through that.” He then cried as he told the court he could not bear to be separated from his wife.

The court received a petition signed by 265 staff and students at Oxford supporting Oldfield’s position. This prompted Judge Kevin Moore to deny the government permission to deport Oldfield, saying, “There is no doubt in my view as to your character and the value you are to U.K. society.” Oldfield runs a small nonprofit group that helps people exchange ideas on ways to improve city living.

A country is in deep trouble when it bullies its own citizens over personal behavior in a way that goes beyond anything New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has ever attempted, and at the same time can’t bring itself to remove a resident alien for disrupting a public event attended by thousands of people. The rule of law, which once sunk its deepest roots in Great Britain, has increasingly become the rule of petty bureaucrats, who seem unable to exercise common sense. Americans need to look carefully at Britain for warning signs about what insanity governments will dream up next.

— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.


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