During my trip to The Battle of Ideas in October I was particularly drawn to a panel discussing The Busybody State featuring Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club. I was hoping to buy her book, Officious: Rise of the Busybody State while I was there but had to mark time till the December launch, but it was worth the wait.
The blurb gives you a good indication of the content:
In Anglo-Saxon countries there is a new and distinctive form of state: the busybody state. This state is defined by an attachment to bureaucratic procedures for their own sake: the rule for the sake of a rule; the form for the sake of a form. Its insignias are the badge, the policy, the code and the procedure. The logic of the regulation is neither to represent an elite class interest, nor to serve the public, nor even to organise social relations with the greatest efficiency as with classic bureaucracy, but rather to represent regulation itself.
This book analyses the logic of the busybody state, explains its origins, and calls for a popular alliance defending the free realm of civil society.And it really does exactly what it say on the tin.
Back when meddling in other people's affairs was frowned upon, we used to call these type of people 'jobsworths'. The idea that a rule is so important that it could never be ignored because "it's more than my job's worth Guv" was anathema to us in an age where society was more important than petty rules, and the Jobsworths were so derided that even Esther Rantzen kept a special section of her That's Life show free to ridicule them.
As Appleton describes in her book, though, this has all changed and now rules have become so important that they are elevated above what is actually desired by the public and society at large. The rule itself is now so important that it has taken precedence over what is actually beneficial to the public, often being positively harmful as a result. If that seems an alien concept, the example - although extreme - of PCSOs standing by and watching a child drown because they weren't trained and the rule book says they have to ignore human instincts might help explain it.
Josie begins by describing how no-one is immune to the new state-sanctioned busybodies, however petty the regulation may be.
War veterans must queue up with political activists to gain their charity-collection licence; foxhunters are targeted as equally as football supporters. Officious authority rises up only in counter-position to the shady, dubious citizenry.And it is this deep mistrust of the public as a whole which is so shocking; modern affairs are being scrutinised and restricted by officialdom with the assumption being that whatever people wish to engage in should be immediately regarded with suspicion. The object is not to make life easier for what the public chooses to do, but rather to deliberately make it more difficult.
Rather than starting from the position of a public need, these officials start from the position of problematic public behaviours, such as people leaving lights on, failing to recycle correctly, organising events without the latest safety guidance, drinking too much, smoking or eating unhealthy foods. The job is not related to a need or a public demand but to an identified problem with the things people are doing. Officious action does not serve but instead acts upon the public.Indeed, the rise of the busybodies has become an independent force of itself, with the head of Cambridgeshire Police complaining in 2014 that there were more officers in her force carrying out criminal-records checks than there were investigating or prosecuting child-abuse cases. The checking of people had become more important than the tackling of real abuse.
The author has been investigating these abuses of power for a long time so it is a keenly-referenced work. You find yourself often flicking to the references section, astonished at some of the excesses such as school staff stubbornly determined to enforce a ban on photography despite overwhelming objection by the parents; clubs and societies either closing down or being starved of volunteers due to hysterical adherence to CRB check rules; and parents being so distrusted in Scotland that the state has decided a stranger to the family should be appointed to oversee their children. It is an atmosphere the author quite rightly interprets as "the contamination of the human relationship".
The book also highlights how the very idea of a space free of restrictions is one most specifically targeted by this new officious class of busybody.
The English pub was traditionally a semi-autonomous sphere, with frosted glass and backrooms where the landlord held sway and police could enter only in the direst of emergencies. This has now become one of the most regulated spheres, with requirements for bag searches, ID scans and restrictions on certain cocktail names and happy hours. The very site of freedom becomes a particular target of officiousness.
Similarly, the beach was traditionally a space of semi-wilderness, independent from the conventions of the town. It was acceptable to do things on beaches that would not be allowed in a park: petting, nudity, sleeping in public. The threshold of the beach was a line of freedom, a release from social control. Now the beach has become the particular target for rules and regulations, with bans in various places on: ball games, beach tents, kites, barbecues, smoking and drinking, dog-walking, building sandcastles, surfing. It is the very freedom of the beach which marks it out for special attention, special bans (smoking is banned on the beach but not in the street) and special patrols by officials to confiscate alcohol or issue reprimands.Appleton takes us through the history of bureaucracy and the officious tendency, discussing the causes of this modern state disease and how it has transformed our liberal nation into one where we are all under constant suspicion, often from friends and co-workers co-opted by the state to be a 'designated person' or 'compliance officer'. The emphasis is always that rules must be adhered to, no matter how disadvantageous and insulting they are to our way of life.
The compliance officer is loyal not to their group or to the sport, but to the state. The designated person is required to view the group with the eye of suspicion, to monitor their actions and to report any infractions, treating their neighbours or colleagues as foreign and unknown. They must ask a neighbour to complete a police check, even though they go around to their house for dinner and their children are friends.A system of licences, fees, databases, intrusive checks and restrictions on benign behaviour has grown which is in itself ironically anti-social. It is also, as Appleton highlights, self-replicating, where "rules beget rules, procedures beget procedures", which often attracts the most unpleasant contaminants in society.
This structure also creates an opportunity for the genuinely officious people – the tut-tutters and curtain-twitchers, who in a previous age were ignored – to step forward into leadership roles.As a measure for how oppressive this system has become, Josie points out that 15 years ago there were 11,000 on-the-spot fines levied on the public, whereas the figure now is over 200,000 thanks to coercive powers to enforce fines being handed out to hospitals, schools, councils and a whole array of other bodies for pretty inconsequential misdemeanours.
Not that the busybody state calls them coercive powers, of course. No, they are described in cuddly terms like "support", and each illiberal condition, restriction or ban is considered as a handy "tool" for state-appointed officials to clamp down on 'unregulated' public actions. Many of these will be familiar to readers here.
For the officious state, there is rarely a good reason not to ban things, and lifestyle bans are posed as the answer to every social problem or ethical failing.
Never has so much attention been paid to the appearance of tobacco or alcohol: the images on the packaging, the position and location of the display, the product name, the exact positions in which they may be consumed. Never did authorities tell smokers exactly where they should stand.As the book describes, the overall contribution of officious regulation on society is a net negative, and often quite damaging. Conmen have been known to exploit the cult of the hi-viz by fraudulently issuing fines and profiteering ... though the effect is not any different from the one inflicted by official wardens.
I could quote loads more from this book because it is so succinct and condensed; but instead I'd just recommend you get yourself a copy and enjoy over a few cuppas. You will find yourself nodding throughout while also becoming quite angry in places, right up to the optimistic denouement where Josie helpfully suggests how we can best "[send] the busybodies back behind the curtains". A laudable goal and one I reckon we should all aspire to.
Officious: The Rise of the Busybody State is available as a paperback or e-book at Zero Books or via Amazon.