Rule book Britain: are we in love with legislation?
Almost every aspect of life in the UK is heavily regulated, from housing and transport to food and energy. For example, in recent decades, governments have also become increasingly interventionist in the name of protecting and promoting public health, involving bans, taxes and other forms of regulation on smoking, alcohol and foods high in salt, sugar or fat. Whether it is the end of smoking in pubs or interference in branding and advertisements, governments have taken regulation further than many would have thought possible 20 years ago.
While there has been much criticism of EU regulations in the debate about Brexit, much more is homegrown, whether it is from the UK parliament in Westminster or from the devolved assemblies. For example, it was actually EU regulations that delayed the introduction of minimum unit pricing, a law passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2012 but only implemented in May this year. As economist Andrew Sentance has argued: ‘There is a lot of regulation holding back UK business, but most of it comes from Westminster or local councils, not Brussels.’
There are plenty of supporters for specific regulations. For example, many in government and in public health more generally would argue that it is legitimate to protect our health by shaping our choices. Setting a basic level of wages, it is argued, supports individual workers against over-powerful businesses. ‘Green belt’ rules prevent urban sprawl and discourage over-concentration of people and business in wealthier areas.
But whatever the merits of any particular law, critics argue that the sheer weight of regulation has become a problem in itself. Excessive regulation may be a barrier to innovation, where any new idea involves changes to the law in order to be allowed or faces the risk of regulation in the future. For example, bans on the advertising of e-cigarettes make it harder to tell smokers about a lower-risk alternative to tobacco cigarettes. Restrictions on the use of health claims now make it much harder for companies to advertise the fact that reformulated food products have lower sugar or fat content.
Nor is it clear that regulations can easily be undone. Even where policies are deemed to have had little or no impact, they are rarely reversed and, if anything, failure is greeted by demands for even more regulation.
Is the UK unique in its enthusiasm for regulation? How do other countries compare? Is greater regulation a necessary price we pay to keep big business in check or does it come at the expense of higher costs and limits on choice? Given how many people now have a stake in bureaucracy and regulatory policy, is it even possible to deregulate?