It’s time to stop banning things



Sometimes over the last few years it has seemed as if the central thought of British politicians has been “What should we ban next?” Well I’ve got lots of ideas. We should ban socialists – their theories have damaged the world for long enough. I’d ban people from talking loudly on public transport and, in particular, those who put their phones on speaker for no good reason. We could ban people who let their children run riot in shops or restaurants. I’m not a fan of vodka or rap music so both of those could go. And professional offence takers – I’m sure no one would miss them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ban people from trying to shove their food choices down other people’s throats (not literally)? And what about the worst Mayor in London’s history (accepting we’ve only had three of them), Sadiq Khan, who has done so much to damage our City? Let’s ban him from running for election ever again. Finally, he might have been covered by our ban on socialists but just in case we should definitely ban Jeremy Corbyn.

You might like some of my ideas, but not others. You might agree with some of my pet hates or think they’re ridiculous, but I hope that as a wise reader of Free Market Conservatives you recognise that one of the worst trends under Theresa May’s Premiership was the increasingly knee-jerk reaction of the Government seeking to ban products, habits and activities that it disliked or saw as a bad thing. And I hope I can reassure you by making clear that I’m not keen to ban any of those ideas I mentioned. There is – or should be – a difference between disliking something and wanting it banned. Furthermore, hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when Conservative Governments were not in the bad habit of seeking to ban bad habits.

The Conservative Party is and should be a broad church but one of the key areas on which we should be closely aligned is in our collective desire to seek to empower individuals, understanding that those individuals are best placed to make decisions over their own lives to as great a degree as possible. Every time we, as politicians, reach for the button marked “BAN” we are effectively saying that people cannot be trusted to make their own decisions on this issue.

Infantilising the public is a bad idea on its own merits, but as Conservatives we should recognise that it is bad tactics and a terrible strategy. The more we accept the logic that people need protecting from their own worst instincts and that the state should therefore intervene, the more we are encouraging voters to believe that there is a logic to and a case for socialism. If Conservatives don’t refrain from banning things unnecessarily and don’t make the case for why individuals should make choices over their own lives, then no one will. Worse than that, we will be actively helping to make the case for more state intervention. And that road leads towards higher taxes, higher spending, less freedom and enfeebled people.

That’s not the only reason why politicians should be incredibly wary about introducing more and more bans. Bans undermine choice. In some respects that’s pretty obvious – of course bans undermine choice, that’s pretty much the point – but it’s important to remember why choice is so important. In short, choice drives improvement. This is a point that is often missed. It’s easy for a politician (or celebrity) to gain applause on Question Time by saying some variation of the phrase: “I don’t want a choice of schools. I just want a good local school.” What that politician (or celebrity) is missing is that choice is a key driver of improved standards. When individuals have no choice but to use a specific product or institution, there is less onus for its quality to rise. Removing individual choice will lower standards.

Furthermore, that’s true even when the thing that you are banning or constricting is potentially harmful. For example one of the first things Sadiq Khan did after his election in May 2016 was to ban Tube adverts that he described as promoting “unhealthy or unrealistic” body images. In other words, he banned adverts involving women in bikinis. More recently he chose to ban adverts for junk food – despite this costing TfL around £25 million in lost revenue and being wholly ineffective in his stated aim of tackling childhood obesity. Banning is easy but ineffective. It may be an easy lever for the Mayor to pull and it may buy him some cheap headlines, but it does not succeed in its stated aims. It’s easy to see why I might be tempted to ban the current Mayor from politics, but actually we need to show the public why voting for him is counterproductive to their welfare – why it has the result of worsening transport, reducing support for the police and undermining efforts to build the homes Londoners need.

So banning is ineffective, tactically and strategically naive and it infantilises the public. Socialists may believe that people can’t be trusted to make their own decisions, but we Conservatives need to be better than that. Luckily, under Boris Johnson, there is every reason to hope that we will be. Nevertheless all Conservatives should make sure the Government resists the seductive siren call to ban just one or two more things and start to push the pendulum back the other way. So what bans would you scrap?

Susan Hall is a London Assembly Member and Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group. Follow her on twitter: @Councillorsuzie