Sunday, 13 May 2018

RIP Tessa Jowell, freedom fighter

Tessa Jowell (1947-2018)

It's hard to believe now but there was a time when it seemed as if the nanny state was being rolled back. In 2005, the Licensing Act came into force and the Gambling Act was passed. This was the high watermark of Labour liberalism. Within a year, it had gone into reverse and every year since has been worse than the one before. But for one brief moment, it seemed as if the government believed in personal freedom and Tessa Jowell, who died yesterday, was at the centre of it.

Despite an incredible amount of fear-mongering at the time, the Licensing Act has proved to be a great success. And the Gambling Act, though botched and watered down, at least dragged Britain's gambling laws into the 20th century, if not the 21st. This was a time when the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport was still known, unironically, as the 'minister for fun'.

Reading her interviews from the time is an education. The past, even the recent past, truly is a foreign country. Here she is talking about the Licensing Act in 2005:

"The vast majority of people should be treated like the adults they are," said Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell.

"It is ridiculous that the government should deny the entire population the right to a drink after 11pm. We will give adults the freedom they deserve and yobs the tough treatment they deserve."

And here she is talking about the plan to allow large so-called 'super-casinos' to regenerate places like Blackpool (which was ultimately cancelled by Gordon Brown):

"There's a whiff of snobbery in some of the opposition to new casinos: people who think they should remain the preserve of the rich; others that find them gaudy and in poor taste; others that don't want the big investment that will come from the United States.

"They are entitled to those views, but they are not entitled to force them on others. Just because I don't choose to go to a casino for a night out doesn't mean that other people should not be able to," she said.

It's hard to imagine any frontbench politician making this basic case for free choice today. And while there may be some who think it, none of them seem to act on it.

Never forget that liberalisation of drinking and gambling was opposed by most Labour backbenchers, virtually every Conservative and the bulk of the media (that old puritan Nick Cohen was particularly vocal, see here, here and here).

I particularly enjoyed this exchange between Tessa and Theresa May on the subject of '24 hour drinking' which May wrongly predicted would lead to 'more binge drinking and disorder':

Ms Jowell makes a direct attack on Mrs May for suggesting other nations, such France and Germany, are "more biologically civilised". She suggests that Mrs May and her supporters should "vow never to consume alcohol in a public place after 11pm for as long as they live". Mrs May would not say yesterday whether she would do so...

Ms Jowell admits that a minority of drinkers are unable to show a responsible attitude towards alcohol but argues that the current laws are "restrictive and undemocratic", that it "always has been" possible to drink for 24 hours a day and that the British public is "adult enough to decide" for itself.

The obituaries today have focused on Jowell's involvement with Sure Start - which the Labour party has a weird obsession with despite the lack of evidence that it does much good - and the London Olympics, which were a jingoistic nightmare to any right-thinking person.

With the Tories and Labour now united in support of big government paternalism, New Labour's brief flirtation with freedom, and Jowell's role in it, has been written out of history. So have a drink in Tessa's memory today and remember the good times. It's what she would have wanted.

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