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Rules Britannia

If you ever watch children playing football, the preparation for the game begins with locating a ball and picking the two teams. The kids will put down jumpers for goalposts or otherwise agree what the goals are. Then they kick-off. They run around and play football. What they do not do before the game begins is form a committee to review the rules of the game, nominate who will be the referee and his or her assistants, or sit down and familiarize themselves with the Football Association’s handbook in case of a dispute later on. Yes, youthful footballers will break the rules from time to time, but they somehow manage to handle transgressions as they go along. With kids playing football, the model of using common sense to decide who has cheated and what is fair usually works pretty darned well, in addition to saving a lot of time and bother. If children can enjoy a good kick-around like that, what then has gone wrong with adult life?

In Britain, professionalism seems to be ever more backed by rules, and ever less backed by professionalism. The nadir came when two Police Community Support Officers, demonstrating little interest in human life, nor support for their community, allowed a young boy to drown because they lacked the training to wade into the water and pull him out. You can only hope and prey that your own life never comes to depend on people who might need to show initiative in the absence of both pay and education, if this is how the professionals behave. The PCSOs had already had a good example set for them. The boy who drowned did so after climbing in to rescue his own sister, yet two adults shirked any sense of moral duty, safe in the knowledge they had no legal duty to get their feet wet. Whilst a child had learnt right from wrong, the cut-price coppers had learned the rules, and the rules said they could not risk their own lives to save another person’s life. The consequence is that they did their job, by doing nothing, and a life was lost. Sadly, this was not an instance where the exception proved the rule.

The worst rules are Health & Safety rules, of course. These rules are in turn fuelled by a litigious blame culture. In a society where every individual is expected to know the endless government rules for what benefits they can claim, what tax credits they are entitled to, and what tax they must voluntarily and cheerily give up for the greater good, it makes sense to create a grey economy based solely on the concept that if something goes wrong, then somebody should be made to pay, and hence somebody must be held to blame. Of course, there are plenty of circumstances where nobody is to blame when terrible things happen. That, however, is uninteresting, so we increasingly employ people so they can be later blamed. If you own a company and allow it to be run by greedy corrupt imbeciles, blame the company’s auditors, not yourself. If you die from heart disease, blame the people who sold you fast food; do not blame yourself for not buying jogging shoes and running off the lard that clogged both your wide ass and narrowed arteries. And if the rain pours and the wind blows, causing your riverside home to flood or the tiles to fall from your roof, blame the builder, blame the engineers who built the flood defences, blame the weatherman, blame anyone – but never blame yourself by buying a rubbish old house in a perilous location. More than anything, Britain has a service economy, and with moving money at a low ebb, the top dog in services is the service in legal advice. We need an economy that keeps lawyers in business. Otherwise, the aspirations of the middle class will be shown to be uncomfortably ill-founded. The foundations are weak because Britain’s service industry is built on a quicksand of its diminished real industry. Lawyers need to be given the right conditions to thrive and multiply, and rules are to lawyers what sh*t is to mushrooms. The greater the number of rules, the greater the need and advantage in engaging lawyers, so obviously we are all better off if there are more rules. All of which means there should be no surprises that lawyers are so keen to be in government, and governments are so keen on adding to society’s inventory of rules.

There is a clue in the world ‘ruler’. Rulers make rules, and they claim to have the measure fo all things. The news is always full of stories of government passing new laws in order to crack down on this and that. But do you remember the occasion when government reduced the number rules, making the rulebook of life lighter, for a change? Despite my ranting, I can think of an example. Small companies no longer need a company secretary that is separate to its single director. That is a good rule change – the company secretary was a cost but not a benefit to anybody but the people who made money from being company secretary. The upshot is that a company can perfectly well exist with only one employee. But even when the rules are changed by government, some institutions reinstate those rules for the back door. Take Britain’s Royal Mail, for example, well-known monopoly supplier of postal services and net drain on the economy because they always make a loss. They charge about £80 to forward business mail for a year. Yet Royal Mail expect businesses to provide signatures from two employees if redirecting a company’s mail. This is despite the fact the service is identical to forwarding a person’s mail, including a sole trader’s mail, yet you do not need two people to say that one person’s mail should be forwarded. If a company with just one employee wants their mail forwarded, they need to get somebody else to write a letter saying everything is okay. The reason given by the Royal Mail for this rule? They want to prevent fraud. Presumably no fraudster has the imagination or resources to provide a Mickey Mouse letter in order to hijack a business’ mail. Or, rather, Royal Mail can contemptuously say they have done everything they could to prevent such fraud. Of course, it is easier for many modern business to just shift all correspondence with banks and suppliers on-line, and avoid relying on the Royal Mail altogether. Hmmm… now what were those Royal Mail strikers saying about the vital service they provided and how they deserve to be subsidized as a result?

The ultimate in rule-driven paradoxes is when Government, the highest rule-imposing body in the land, sets rules for itself. It is the metaphorical equivalent of somebody who counts the calories whilst shoving another cream pie into their face. However ridiculous it is to set rules for yourself, that is what the British government is preoccupied with doing. For example, they intend to introduce a rule which will bind them to pay off the huge national debt they have run up. What is the point of this rule? It is to say they trust themselves to manage the economy, but they do not trust themselves to manage the economy, so they will manage the economy by imposing a rule that they will follow no matter how much they do not want to follow it. This is from the same people who promised an end to boom and bust. Either government needs to borrow or it does not. If they need to borrow, they should, and if not, they should not. Setting a rule blindly of the circumstances is meaningless. The same government already had a rule about borrowing over the economic cycle. First they stretched it, then they broke it, and they justified this by saying they needed to. Fair enough, but that means the rule itself is pointless. Now the government offers a new rule, which is a rule to pay off the debt. It may be a rule, but is not a consistent yardstick for how they will behave.

The irony is that this is a government well versed in bending and breaking rules, such as the rules on when you can start a war. The Iraq Enquiry plods along. The inevitable revelations focus on how government lawyers thought the government was breaking international law by instigating an attack on Iraq without a UN resolution. The absurdity of rules is exemplified by they interplay. For example, wars cost money. They cost lots of money (as well as lives). That is why troops get killed for want of helicopters and body armour, because troops are cheap but helicopters and body armour are expensive. And now we have a rule on paying down the national debt. Does this mean that, if the situation were the same and there was another Saddam Hussein pretending to have WMDs, we would not go to war? International law on starting wars would not be the impediment, but heavens forbid we break our own rules on managing public sector borrowing and find ourselves unable to pay the price of more military intervention.

There are rules everywhere you look these days. Keep off the grass. Maximum speed 20 miles per hour. No parking between the hours of 8am and 8pm. Inform the dentist of the need to cancel an appointment 48 hours in advance. Tick the box to agree to the personal user licence for this software. Read this summary of the changes in the terms and conditions for your credit card. On top of the rules, there are yet more rules. If you do not read the reams of paperwork explaining the rules for your bank account, then what of it? You can rely on the reams of rules created by Government and the reams of rules created by the banking regulator to ensure the bank’s rules are reasonable after all. If the government’s rules are no good, then go to Europe’s rules. And if America’s rules get broken, they can also be applied to British citizens, ensuring international rule subservience. Subservience, that is, for common people. Politicians tend to be exempt from the rules, reportedly for the good of everyone they represent.

Remarkably, for all the rules in force in Britain, there is never a rule when you need one. In Doha I queued five hours for tickets to a football game, and not a single person pushed in. If only visitors to the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy were as well behaved as those footy fanatics. On a rainy day, the security guard repeatedly asked people to budge forward in the long and winding queue, for the sake of ensuring everyone was under shelter and the building entrance was not blocked. Without complaint, they did so. Yet despite the visible evidence of a long line of people waiting patiently, two old dears bypassed the long line, strolled straight up to the counter and proceeded to reach into their purses to buy two tickets. So much for rules in nation that supposedly loves to queue. I was thankful that the woman behind the counter was made of sterner stuff than the timorous security guard who had been so confident in instructing people to take two steps forward whenever a gap emerged in the queue. The ticket vendeuse, spying my flabbergasted look at these two rude and selfish old women, challenged their presumption and sent them to the back. From appearances, the ill-mannered duo looked like retired teachers, which might explain the need for endless ASBOs for Britain’s youth.

You cannot entirely blame British government for the purgatory of rules taken to inhuman extremes. In the final reckoning, politicians tend to obey their voters and generally follow the fashions of the era. As far as the average Brit is concerned, football is far more important than politics, and football is far from immune to the chronic disease of the creeping rules. Even little children can throw down their jumpers for goalposts and enjoy a perfectly fun kickabout, but for multimillionaire professional footballers, rules are a constant source of frustration, thanks to their application, non-application or misapplication, depending on which side you play for. It is not hard for kids to referee their own games, because football has so few rules. Do not use your hands. Get the ball in the net. Do not try to defeat an opponent by swinging a machete threateningly in his direction. But listen to the endless drivel of overpaid pundits and cry-baby managers, and you would think that football is the unfairest game in the world, in desperate need of a rules overhaul. TV replays, extra assistants, fitter referees, and even the manager’s right to challenge decisions have all been proposed as solutions to the seeming plague of ‘bad’ decisions. Meanwhile, the rules themselves are tweaked for the good of the game. Level is onside, keepers can move sideways at a penalty, kicking the ball away merits yellow and a foul by the last man deserves red… did these rules really improve the game so much?

The eccentricity of sporting rules is that they apply to the other side, not your own. You still hear people still repeating the delusion that British players cheat less than their European counterparts. Presumably anyone who still believes this must always shut their eyes whenever players with extraordinary strength and balance, people like Heskey, Owen, and Gerrard, make a purposeful run in the penalty box. You are more likely to see Gerrard launch into a stream of upper cuts in a bar than see him trip up whilst walking down the street. But put him in that mysterious zone that surrounds the opponents’ goal, a rectangular version of the Bermuda triangle, and strange forces compel him to collapse to ground faster than a tower of cards built atop a jenga tower on a rickety stool. With the stool on the top flight of Blackpool Tower on the windiest day of the year. In the most debated example of rules confusion in recent weeks, the Irish team expected all rules to be rewritten because one decision went against them. To hear the protestations on behalf of the Irish national team, after being unfortunately defeated in the their World Cup qualification play-off with France, you would think they were odds-on favourites to win the tournament, instead of a hapless marginal team that failed to well enough to go through based on the results from their qualifying league alone. But it is difficult to be too harsh on the Irish, as half of their squad is British after all, reliant on mysterious grandparents and great uncles to be eligible to play for a land which they only tend to visit when playing ‘home’ games for Ireland. And tells you all you need to know about the purpose of rules in international football.

Not everywhere in the world is hamstrung by rules. Being abroad, it is a revelation to discover there are places where you can swim in the sea without disclaimers warning that you might be drowned, and fizzy drinks cans that assume you can pull a ring without severing your forefinger. At the aforementioned queue for football tickets in Doha, they kept the store open an extra hour beyond closing time, because serving customers is considered a higher priority than subservience to the employment contracts of the people paid to sell those tickets. Britain has the mother of Parliaments, and she is the happy matriarch of every Brit. Mother’s been parenting her children for a long time. She does not much enjoy letting them off the leash, never mind trusting them to make their own decisions.

Even when leaving rules Britannia, they give you a parting gift of extended rules impositions to tide you over until you return. A bag that was light enough to be allowed in the cabin on the way in is subjected to a precise weighing to confirm compliance whilst on the way out. See-through bags of toiletries had nestled unmolested in hand baggage prior to arrival, but demand thorough inspection on departure. These transgressions, though, are mere peccadilloes compared to the great bête noire of international travel – believing you should be free to move around this world without a piece of paper that gives you permission. I do understand why there is a rule that says I am supposed to have a valid passport. What I do not understand is the remarkable effort is put into enforcing this rule, which at every turn presupposes that previous checks had been performed by bumbling nincompoops. The airline checks my passport when I check-in. At the border control, my passport is checked in addition to the boarding card I got when checking in. At the departure gate, they check my passport and tear my boarding card in two. In the hour or so from start to finish, my passport has not changed once, but it has been checked three times. Then, when sitting in the departure lounge, two border agency goons are wandering around. What are they employed to do? You guessed it. They check my passport. Clearly not overworked, they would have checked my passport twice if the dozy woman, following the same path trod by her burly male colleague a mere two minutes before, had not been challenged about the need for a passport to be checked twice. Which tells you everything you need to know about the quality of the check – what if I had been lying? She did not check that, but just took my word for it.

Rules are imposed by big people on little people, which is why parents set rules for children, and not vice versa. You and I may not be allowed to drive in the bus lane at any time (unless you are driving a bus) but when Tony Blair comes to town, he should stop the traffic, or so the theory goes. All of which explains why certain rules, like those for claiming expenses or paying tax, are so liable to be bent, twisted, exploited, broken and cheated by the ultimate rule-makers, our Members of Parliament.

Rules turn us into children. Not happy children playing in the park and making things up as we go along. Miserable children, bound and gagged and unable to act or think for ourselves. For adults to depend on rules is troubling, because there are no adults who can be relied upon to be more adult than any other adult. Which means we might as well recite rules in the mirror and enforce them by bending over and spanking ourselves. If kids playing football can get by with few rules, maybe they have more sense than the infantilized grown-ups around them. They get by with a sense of right and wrong, of luck and misfortune, of getting up and getting on with it, no matter what the game, or life, sends their way. Adults, in contrast, substitute lengthier rules for shorter rules and consider this to be a sign of great progress. They are wrong, and with rules, we have long passed the point where less would be more. We need fewer rules and to follow them, not more and to ignore them. The problem is, there is no way to turn the tide and have fewer rules in future – unless we wrote a new rule that makes that happen…

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