Given the cheering coming from the more chauvinistic precincts of the British press, one would think that May 29th was Agincourt, Trafalgar, and Waterloo rolled into one. The French had barely had barely finished shrugging non to the proposed European constitution before the Eurosceptics started gloating. Mark Steyn captured the spirit with a column in the Telegraph, in which he observed that the proposed constitution had been flushed down “the Eurinal of history”.
This is somewhat understandable, since there is much to the criticisms leveled against the EU. The eurozone economies are doing poorly, the stability and growth pact is a failure, and Brussels is a utopian, bureaucratic, dirigiste, and unrepresentative sort of place. What is curious though is the notion, which has quickly gained significant support, that somehow Britain is poised to “liberate” Europe. The June 4th edition of The Economist celebrated “the Europe that died,” and argued that “the one to save” would have to be based on the “Anglo-Saxon” model of decentralization and economic liberalization. The June 4th edition of The Spectator went even further, arguing in its cover story (“Britain Can Liberate Europe”) that Britain was the only country, and Tony Blair the only leader, in any position to get Europe on the way to a more decentralized, democratic, and liberal future.
Yet it isn’t like all is well in Albion. Sure, the economy is doing great, with a growth rate double that of the Euro-zone and unemployment less than half that of France. But Britain is also beset by a deep social and cultural malaise which many Europeans might well perceive as stemming from the alienating and dislocating effects of that same liberal, pro-growth economic model. Furthermore, the British government has responded to this crisis in such a decidedly heavy-handed and illiberal fashion that one might plausibly argue that Britain is a country as much in need of liberation as any other place in Europe.
Anyone who travels to England these days invariably returns with horror stories of quiet evening walks disrupted by outrageous scenes of mass public drunkenness. The problem of “binge drinking,” and the accompanying crime, violence, and social chaos, reached epidemic proportions over the winter, prompting the government to put together an emergency legislative package. Last month, a British shopping mall introduced a ban on teenagers wearing hooded sweatshirts (“hoodies”) as a way of dealing with vandalism and a bizarrely futuristic form of harassment called “happy slapping.” This involves groups of teens running up and slapping unsuspecting kids or passersby, capturing the whole scene on cameraphones, and emailing it around or posting it on the web.
The hoodie ban received the enthusiastic support of Tony Blair. This is unsurprising: In 1998, Blair’s government passed the Crime and Disorder Act, which introduced the notorious “Anti-Social Behaviour Orders,” or “Asbos”. In order to be served with an Asbo, an individual need not actually commit a crime. All that is required is that a judge be satisfied that the person has committed an act which “causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm, or distress.” Asbos are designed to prevent drunkenness, intimidation, and other non-criminal forms of behaviour from ruining community life, and while the orders involve civil, not criminal, sanctions, breaches of an Asbo are punishable by up to five years in prison.
The UK press has had fun detailing the many ridiculous orders that have been served, from the woman who is no longer allowed to garden in her underwear to the new rule that allows local councils to fine people who let their hedges grow too high. Amusing, sure, but there is a serious problem here. The country is in the midst of a major social crisis, and the only way anyone can think to deal with it is through nanny-state measures and restrictions on civil rights. Violent crime was up 17% in Britain last year, and an editorial in a recent edition of the British Medical Journal suggested that it might help to ban the sale of kitchen knives with pointy ends. This, too, has met with widespread derision, but the Journal’s instincts are essentially no different from those of the Blair government, which appears not to have encountered a social problem that could not be solved through a healthy restriction on individual liberty.
Since the double rejection of the EU constitution by the French and the Dutch, the European project has met with some heavy criticism from the rather self-satisfied British. On June 9th, Europe returned the favour, in the form of a report from the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Alvaro Gil-Robles. Responding in part to the use of Asbos and other forms of legislated social control, Mr. Gil-Robles condemned the Blair government for its dangerous tendency to “consider human rights as excessively restricting the effective administration of justice and the protection of the public interest.”
But surely the British don’t need some Eurocrat to tell them that the famous hereditary rights of Englishmen are endangered. Or do they? For all the recent sniping across the Channel, perhaps Europe and the UK need one another more than they like to admit.