Friday, 16 May 2008

The impossibility of being good

As someone brought up in the catholic tradition, I find it almost axiomatic that no good deed is possible unless there is free will on the part of the "doer". Or if that is too theological: the same principle holds in most systems of Law.

You cannot be held responsible for an act that you were co-erced into doing.

For that reason, it always used to irk me that British Rail - or whichever company was selling me my train tickets at the time - would refuse to sell me a saver ticket before a certain appointed hour. Their own rationale, of course, was that if they sold me such a ticket, I might just hop on a train reserved to non-saver tickets, thereby depriving them of their due income.

I disliked this approach. It was impractical. A mere 12 minutes separated the time at which my local station would sell saver tickets and the departure of the first saver train for London. So there was always the possibility that you would end up missing the train.

More than that, I hated the moral abdication it forced upon me. I never had any intention of fare dodging. But I like to feel that were it an option, I would have chosen the righteous path. Cue metaphor linking "the straight and narrow" to Railtrack.

Now fast forward to Thursday when a man is refused alcohol in Tesco. Was he acting strangely? Was he breaking any laws? Was he, perchance, being abusive to staff?

Why, no. His crime was simply to be accompanied by his 15-year-old daughter. Yes. As a Tesco prig explained carefully to the errant shopper, we won't sell you alcohol "because you're with your daughter and she's not over 21".

As I noted today, in my local Tesco: there are plenty of notices reminding me that I may not buy alcohol unless I appear to be over 21. There is also a notice warning me not to supply alcohol to under 18-year-olds.

But this finger-wagging is a step further. A step too far.

The man was doing absolutely nothing illegal. Nonetheless, he was penalised because it was possible that he might. Not content with obeying the law, Tesco appear to have taken it upon themselves to be our moral guardians as well.

Which fits so perfectly with New Labour. Once upon a time, a certain Gladstone accused Conservativism of being "distrust of the people tempered by fear".

That ethos is still alive and kicking today. Its just that its no longer the Conservatives who own it.

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