In the Media

Don?t panic ? or our culture of caution will be the death of us

PUBLISHED June 12, 2006

Better safe than sorry is the official response to the collapse of the Forest Gate anti-terrorism operation. Better safe than sorry is apparently the inquiry conclusion on the police killing last year of Jean de Menezes in a London Tube train. Better safe than sorry is justifying the erection of concrete anti-bomb slabs round Waterloo and Victoria stations. In each case we are told that you cannot be ?too safe? when it comes to public security.

These responses may or may not be justified. They seem wholly disproportionate, but then none of us knows the extent of the secretly perceived threat. The British have traditionally taken the bona fides of authority on trust. Mistakes, if they are made, are made in good faith. Consent to the exercise of secret authority requires support not when authority is in the right but, as Lord Melbourne pleaded, when it is in the wrong. That is the essence of public trust. 
The edifice of such trust is crumbling. Hence the growing dissatisfaction of people and politicians with the performance of the public sector, despite it being not measurably worse in Britain than elsewhere. Sir Ian Blair, London?s police chief, protests that he is ?damned when I do and damned when I don?t?. He is damned when, as over Menezes and Forest Gate, his force overreacts. He is damned when, as on July 7, security errs on the side of inaction. But in each case damnation results from a decline in trust. Purporting to be better safe than sorry, authority can no longer get away with sorry.

Hyper-caution is now an epidemic, raging and choking its way into every corner of British public administration. A report of a cyanide vest has 250 policemen swarming across east London and declaring an air exclusion zone. A doctor will not prescribe treatment without a myriad of tests. A youth worker will not take an adventure tour without a stack of signed forms and indemnities. A civil servant no longer makes a decision without a lawyer, an accountant or a consultant in tow.

Nobody trusts professional competence, be it personal or institutional. When the National Health Service last month pleaded to be left alone for just one minute, Patricia Hewitt, the embattled health secretary, blew another ?1.2m on yet another NHS upheaval plan from McKinsey, Tony Blair?s personal comfort blanket.

On Thursday the prime minister had a paranoid seizure worthy of a Qin emperor. Despite having passed 43 crime bills since 1997 ? more than in the entire preceding century ? he said he knew of yet more plots against public safety. He needed more ?summary powers? and less interference from courts and judges. The police should impose more instant Asbos, expand imprisonment for possessing drugs and be freed to inspect private bank accounts ?on suspicion?, confiscating money and property without the inconvenience of a trial or a conviction.

These proposals not only reverse the burden of criminal proof, they constitute punishment without trial: a serious erosion of civil liberty. Yet the home secretary dares not complain. The lord chancellor dares not complain. The attorney-general dares not complain. The Labour party dares not complain, nor do the opposition parties. Blair is engaged in the law and order equivalent of an arms race. Everyone is seized by better safe than sorry.

In this frenzied atmosphere the rock on which democratic consent is founded ? faith in the calm judgment of authority ? goes by the board. I cannot believe that many people regard Blair?s legislativitis on crime as justified by some perceived threat. He is politically jumpy. The risk of recreational drug consumption has not risen so fast as to need him to imprison teenagers for 10 years for a pocketful of ecstasy.

Anti-terrorism overkill is now such a bureaucratic monster that any mischievous informer can reduce an enemy?s home to rubble and neighbourhood to chaos, while every policeman for miles around wants a share in the action. (Is it any wonder when the home secretary invites film crews to watch him take part in an immigrant arrest operation?)

Government claims that ?better safe than sorry? is to protect the public from heightened risk. Yet I do not believe I am living in greater danger today than when I was young, whether from nuclear attack, terrorist bombs, bank fraud or epidemic disease, horrors against which the government daily warns me. Only street crime seems worse, about which the authorities seem remarkably relaxed.

What has happened is that the government?s risk threshold has lowered, a risk not of physical danger but of political embarrassment. A terrorism death appears as a failure of state policy. The far more real threat of death by knives and guns is regarded as a failure by private citizens.

There is no such thing as a risk-free society. Every community is awash in risks, and handling them is a sign of its maturity. Scaring people witless, as the present government too often does, not only involves crying wolf (as over smallpox, ricin and bird flu) but destroys faith in its judgment of priorities. Such is the hysteria surrounding Blair?s war on terror that the Metropolitan police must deflect resources away from combating street crime towards counter-terrorism and VIP protection. As in Northern Ireland its heavy-handedness risks alienating precisely the communities on whose co-operation it depends for public safety.

Hence public scepticism over the handling of the Menezes and Forest Gate incidents. They had the hallmarks of a police service terrified of political retribution if it erred on the side of risk. A service battered by ministerial (and therefore media) interference is close to becoming politicised. It dares not give a clear statement of the risks it expects the public to accept because ministers want credit for ordering the police to avert all risk. Thus we get news of ever more blood-curdling threats from bombs, chemicals and maniacal mullahs and are given ever more assurances that ministers are permitting ?no risks to be taken with public security?.

Risks are always being taken with public security. If not, there would be bomb barriers round every station, ministry, palace and museum in Britain. Democratic liberty involves risks and trusts government to judge them sensibly. Because government seems to have lost the capacity to explain them, and thus admit the limits on its power, it has eroded the bond between ruler and ruled on which confidence depends. When the police overreact, the victim community is furious and the public derisive.

Risk aversion is now an illness, an Orwellian poison permeating the public sector and making cowards of us all. The liberal is as guilty as the authoritarian. The rush to more egalitarian and open government has not increased trust in government, merely a torrent of statistics and spin. 

As the philosopher of risk, Onora O?Neill, once warned, too much openness can be the enemy of trust. ?Perhaps we should not be surprised,? she said, ?that the technologies that spread information so easily are just as good at spreading misinformation? ? and with misinformation, distrust.
Saddle any profession with too much intrusion and oversight and it will lose confidence in its own judgments. The public will lose confidence in them too. If anything, said O?Neill, trust recedes as transparency advances. This now applies across the public sector.  
It is politically macho for ministers such as John Reid, Margaret Beckett and Hewitt to attack their subordinate staff and call in consultants at every turn. The effect is to reduce once-trusted professionals to box-tickers and clock-watchers. The recent idea that head teachers might no longer be needed or that doctors should work factory hours are classics of professional degradation. Public servants, be they policemen, doctors or youth workers, are no longer selfless knights crusading for a better society but risk-averse sub-contractors to a Treasury cost centre.

Ministers should say openly that the public must acce
pt some danger so as to maintain freedom of speech, movement and civil liberty in Britain. They should take the public into their confidence by speaking the language of proportionality.

Better safe than sorry is a clich?, not a guide to policy. Carried to its present conclusion, it means that nobody will believe what politicians say and people will stop trusting the police. The only winner is the terrorist.