Battle in Print: 'Elf-and-Safety: a case study in the perils of left-right thinking

Dolan Cummings, 5 October 2010

The notion that statutory Health and Safety regulations have become excessively precautionary in Britain is now very familiar. In fact, mutterings about ‘‘Elf-and-Safety gone mad’ have become a bit of a cliché, closely associated with a particular newspaper, the Daily Mail.

For this reason, Health and Safety stories tend to follow a particular narrative. This involves the Nanny State, political correctness, the demise of common sense and the general idea that British society is going to hell in a handcart. It should be noted, however, that this last cliché is now almost invariably used ironically by those opposing this particular narrative. People who find the Daily Mail not to their taste are likely to respond to ‘‘Elf-and-Safety gone mad’ stories by rolling their eyes in detached bemusement rather than shaking their heads in silent fury as invited.

Following the political templates of the twentieth century, and perhaps the self-image of Daily Mail readers and their detractors respectively, it is common to describe concerns about this sort of thing as ‘right-wing’. And accordingly, those who consider themselves ‘left-wing’ tend to steer clear of the issue, if not actively defend ‘Elf-and-Safety gone mad.  This is unfortunate, because it obscures the real and important trends underlying precautionary Health and Safety rules. It perpetuates sterile, dogmatic thinking in place of critical understanding. ‘Elf-and-Safety thus serves as a case study in the perils of left-right thinking.

‘Elf-and-Safety: the ‘right-wing’ account

Typical Daily Mail stories in this genre focus on examples of Health and Safety precautions that defy common sense: children banned from playing conkers or running in pancake races, apple trees chopped down or bunting removed by local authorities in order to prevent far-fetched hypothetical accidents, even children left at genuine risk (stuck up a tree in one example (1)) because professionals have been advised not to risk intervening. In each case what offends and exasperates is the fact that official rules and guidelines prevent people from going about their business and applying their own judgement.

For the Daily Mail sensibility, rules that interfere with traditions like school sports day or Christmas are especially offensive. The banning of conkers is a particularly good example, because it evokes a nostalgic vision of a lost England peopled by small boys with rosy cheeks and knobbly knees scrumping apples (before the trees were chopped down by the council) and using jumpers for goalposts (they wouldn’t be allowed today). As with this latter example, there is also a tendency to imagine bans and prohibitions that aren’t actually there, or to ascribe to Health and Safety decisions actually made by head teachers, businesses or others who happen to find themselves in a position of authority. This is because Health and Safety is regarded as an aspect of the Nanny State, whose favoured villains are do-gooding social workers and the like.

In the right-wing account, then, ‘Elf-and-Safety is part of a left-wing agenda of ever-increasing state control, which is hostile to traditional notions of individual responsibility. It is directly analogous with political correctness, in that both require conformity to a set of rules imposed from on high, tying people up in knots and losing all sense of proportion.

Health and Safety: the ‘left-wing’ counternarrative

Those who consider themselves left-wing actually prefer not to talk about this sort of thing at all. It’s all a bit embarrassing, as nobody wants to defend obviously batty rules and regulations, so the instinctive response is to dismiss ‘Elf-and-Safety stories as exaggerated or distorted somehow (2). Another option is to point out that public authorities do have a responsibility to ensure people’s safety, actually. That sounds a bit prim, though. A more combative approach is to blame the rise of litigiousness – certainly a fear of being sued is often cited as a reason for precaution - but this argument runs the risk of sounding a bit Daily Mail itself. When really pushed, then, the resolute left-wing thinker might come up with something like the following.

Historically, of course, Health and Safety regulations were put in place to ensure safety primarily in work places. Trades unions campaigned for firm rules in order to protect their members from unscrupulous employers who were all too willing to have workers risk life and limb on their behalf. Statutory Health and Safety regulations standardised practices across an industry so that workers could not be pressured into taking risks. To this day, many jobs can be very dangerous, and strict safety procedures and rules are necessary to prevent accidents as well as illnesses and conditions than can result from careless practices in the longer-term.

Above all, left-wingers are very sensitive to the fact that criticisms of Health and Safety come from right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail (3). The Conservative-led coalition government has announced its intention to review Health and Safety regulations, so this is surely part of a right-wing agenda (4). Far from being ‘common sense’, revoking this protection for workers would constitute a neoliberal assault on the welfare state. Facing the squeeze of the economic downturn, big business and its political backers are seeking to sacrifice the safety of vulnerable employees in the pursuit of capitalist profit.

A more critical view

What is striking is that the right-wing and left-wing accounts of Health and Safety are actually describing two very different phenomena, and that the ‘argument’ is at cross-purposes: the right-wing case need not mean revoking necessary protection for workers, while the left-wing case does not have to involve a defence of the excessive regulation that upsets the Daily Mail. It is equally clear that the two accounts both fail to explain what’s going on.

The main weakness of the right-wing account is its preoccupation with the Nanny State and formal rules and regulations. What’s really intriguing is why people go along with these rules, and even begin to improvise their own, devising ever more nonsensical precautions and labelling them with the authoritative stamp of Health and Safety. In many developing countries like India, people routinely ignore state-imposed regulations – even sensible ones like traffic rules – and happily take nerve-jangling risks as a matter of course. Why is it that British people defer so willingly to daft rules someone has just made up on the spot? Nanny State doesn’t cut it.

As for the left-wing counternarrative, the only flaw in this brilliant expose of neoliberal malfeasance is that it’s utter nonsense. Of course certain safety rules are necessary to protect workers in dangerous jobs, but the ‘Elf-and-Safety phenomenon lamented by the Daily Mail has nothing to do with that. Indeed, in a recent document the Trades Union Congress concedes that some of the nuttier stories are true, though nothing to do with the law, and worries that the ‘brand’ of Health and Safety as a workplace concern is being diminished – though it surely goes on to contribute to this problem by insisting offices are just as dangerous as factories, citing the risk of depression as an example (5).

You don’t have to be a retired sergeant major to see the rhetoric of Health and Safety is often used disingenuously. Just as trades unionists appeal to the authority of the ‘Elf-and-Safety rather than arguing openly for better, nicer working conditions, local authorities have been known to close playgrounds and other facilities on the same grounds, cutting costs in the name of precaution. Health and Safety is now a favoured rationale for refusing to allow everything from entertainment licences to political demonstrations. Health and Safety seems to be the one value we can all agree on, and therefore a favoured anchor for any argument. ‘Never mind the politics or morality of the situation,’ people are implicitly saying, ‘This is about saving lives.’ Only in the longer term it doesn’t work, because when rhetoric clashes with common sense, it becomes devalued and regarded with cynicism.

The oppositional rhetoric of ‘‘Elf-and-Safety gone mad’ has so far been monopolised by the Daily Mail perhaps because of that paper’s hyper-sensitivity to busybodies (it takes one to know one) and to anything that seems to be changing the traditional British way of life. But sensible people of all political traditions and none can see that something is amiss when we are required to fill out lengthy risk assessment forms to undertake simple activities, and when we are encouraged to defer to the supreme value of safety in every situation.

To understand this phenomenon in terms of left and right is not to understand it at all. We live in a risk-averse society, but when faced with regulations that defy common sense we should all be brave enough to open our mouths and say so, even at the awful risk of ‘sounding a bit right-wing’.


Dolan Cummings, convenor, Battle for Politics; associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; editor, Culture Wars; editor, Debating Humanism


(1) Teachers leave boy, 5, stranded in tree because of health and safety, Daily Mail, 25 March 2010
(2) The Health and Safety Executive publishes a Myth of the Month, largely to debunk inaccurate news stories. In most cases, though, this just makes clear the HSE itself has not banned ‘x’, though it might have issued guidelines and others might have taken them too far. Any more general culture of excessive precaution is not addressed.
(3) ‘Elf and safety’ stories should carry a warning, Independent, 15 March 2010
(4) Bonfire of elf ‘n’ safety: Cameron plans to tear up regulations which have ‘become a music hall joke’, Daily Mail, 20 September 2010
(5) The Case for Health and Safety, TUC, 7 September 2010

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