Should we ban “banning” things?

The political addiction to mere prohibitions.

We all want to ban something. It is a staple of our political culture. All of us are perhaps one moment away from seeking to ban what someone else is saying or doing. The nod-a-long responses of "it shouldn't be allowed" or "there should be a law against it" are the common solutions to many perceived problems.

However, to "ban" something is not actually to eliminate it, whatever "it" is. The "it" is not extinguished; the "it" may just be attended by some different consequences. The legalistic prose in a solemn document is not some magic spell which banishes horrors by invocation. To say there should be a law against a thing is often no more than saying there should be a spell against it.

In fact, "banning" things often creates new problems. In its correct legal form, a prohibition establishes certain legal and coercive consequences should the prohibited act occur: a court order for damages, say, or a prison sentence. Being banned does not thereby stop the thing from happening. It just means that the legal system will be engaged in a way it otherwise would not be.

Moreover, in the complex "real world" of ever-changing and shifting political, social, and economic relationships, the general prohibition (and the coercive sanction) can sometimes only make unwelcome situations more complicated. Some behaviour may well be discouraged (the deterrence effect); but other behaviour will be modified so as to escape detection. Or, the behaviour may carry on as before, but worsened by the criminalization of all those involved. The easily satisfied will have their "ban" but the effects may be unfortunate or unpredictable.

This is not to argue for libertarianism, still less anarchism. It is instead to urge sensible and balanced law-making. There is a positive and essential role for prohibitions and coercive sanctions in our polity. However, such laws should always be made and implemented with anxious scrutiny. Enacting the prohibition is not an end in itself. There should be regard both to the likely effects of the "ban" and to the interferences which will be made to other values important in a liberal society.

So those calling for something to be "banned" should therefore ask two simple questions. First, what will the prohibition do in respect of the undesired behaviour? And second, what other consequences may flow from the prohibition? Good answers to both these questions will inform the political choice as to whether such a ban should be implemented and, if so, how. We may even get better laws as a consequence; we could even get prohibitions that actually work and are proportionate.

The call for something to be "banned" should be the start of a mature and constructive political debate, and not the end of one. Perhaps the time has come to ban just banning things.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. He also writes the Jack of Kent blog and for The Lawyer.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.