TCS Daily

London Eye

By Michael Rosen - September 16, 2005 12:00 AM

LONDON -- Here in this great world city, the birthplace of modern democratic republican government, the seat of the last great empire, I find myself too overwhelmed to write a single, unified essay. So here are several shorter thoughts held together by nothing more than the inspiration and great pleasure I've extracted from my visit.

1) More on religious incitement

Last week, I shared some thoughts on the incitement issuing from various British mosques. In response to the list of "unacceptable behaviors" propounded by the Home Office, the European Union has balked, insisting that any Islamic preachers be deported in accordance with Europe-wide policies. The (unelected) European Commission informed Britons that deportation must be coordinated with other European governments and with the EU in general. Members of the (elected) European Parliament were planning to bring the matter before the parliament later this week.

This development would be bad enough, especially for the already Euro-skeptical Brits, if it did not coincide with other recent revelations. Migration Watch, a UK think-thank, published a report finding that Britain has added 1.2 million new immigrants since 1997, accounting for more than 80% of the country's population growth. Including illegal immigration in this number increases the total to over 200,000 immigrants per year. This in a country with reportedly the loosest visa policy in the entire world.

Without a doubt, many immigrants to Britain -- like those in the U.S. -- bring invaluable skills and contribute significantly to the economy. One Londoner I spoke to noted that many immigrants from the former Eastern Bloc perform skilled manual labor jobs -- such as mechanics, electricians, plumbers and the like -- that are slowly being abandoned by working-class Brits eager to attend university and to join the white-collar world. Moreover, given its former imperial role, Britain has served as a magnet for the residents of its former colonies.

But, like any country, Britain must carefully monitor and screen immigrants, especially in the Age of Terror. Uncontrolled borders may yield economic benefits, but they also sow the seeds of ethnic and cultural balkanization. It's not likely that everyday Britons will cotton to the EU's telling them otherwise.

2) A nanny state...

For a nation of smokers, the British government has taken peculiarly great pains to eradicate smoking from the public sphere.

Seemingly everywhere one goes -- coffee shops, tourist attractions, restaurants, train stations -- every other person has a Dunhill dangling from his or her mouth.

Nevertheless, an entire half of every pack of cigarettes bears a dramatic health warning that would make our Surgeon General blush, such as "SMOKING KILLS".

On August 29, the Great Northern English Railroad officially and finally banned smoking everywhere on its trains (I enjoyed one of the maiden voyages of the (tobacco) smoke-free trains).

And one London restauranteur told me -- through the cigar and cigarette fumes wafting across his establishment -- that the government plans to proscribe smoking in all places of public accommodation by 2008.

The general sense I get is that many non-smoking Britons find the practice noxious and annoying. But more interestingly, many smokers seem to embrace the government's moves as a way of forcing them to do something they'd like to do anyway: quit.

This theme permeates several other of the government's paternalistic experiments. Take food packaging: British food bears labels with more health information than any consumer can possibly process. Every packaged food item in a typical British supermarket displays, in addition to the list of ingredients and nutrition information, a prominent description of whether the product contains cow's milk, eggs, nuts, meat, or soy products.

While this information is undoubtedly essential to those suffering from allergies -- just as the ubiquitous "Suitable for Vegetarians" labels enable thousands to accurately observe their dietary requirements -- it also reflects a liability-obsessed need to document any ingredient with the slightest potential for consumer harm, even if this means confusing the consumer with too much information.

The nanny state impulse spills over into other areas of life as well. Since early 2003, London -- guided by its mayor, "Red" Ken Livingstone -- has imposed an £8 ($15) "congestion charge" for driving into a 21-square-mile area in the city's center (with a westward expansion in the works).

Although the fee indeed appears to have reduced auto traffic in an urban area not originally designed for automobiles, it has also hampered businesses in the center who now have trouble competing with their counterparts in the suburbs. Why hassle with riding the Underground into town when you can drive your car to the nearest shopping mall?

3) ...but not for the disabled!

Why indeed? Apart from the ever-present risk of terrorism, the Tube is darn near impossible to use if you require wheeled transport. It's murder navigating the steps and (often broken) escalators for anyone in a wheelchair or stroller -- and for those accompanying them.

My wife and I have had a particularly tough time with our two small children -- both in strollers/buggies/prams -- so much so that at the end of a tiring day of touring, we usually end up jumping in a cab and eating the cost of our return train ticket. Even the largest, most central stations almost never offer lifts, forcing us to precariously carry the kid-occupied strollers or bounce them down stairs. Worse yet, while every station we've visited provides a special ticket-taking gate for wheeled persons, they're dreadfully undermanned and we've often had to shove the strollers through the regular, narrow gates.

The Underground's website provides meager advice for travelers with children (and, astoundingly, contains no information about wheelchair accessibility), most of it negative: "Don't board with strollers during peak hours," "Use care on the escalators." How about providing some lifts or staffing the wheelchair/buggy gates more regularly?

Granted, all of this would be expensive. And I don't mean to suggest that the administrators of the Tube, or Brits in general (many of the popular tourist sites we visited suffered from a similar lack of ramps), are insensitive to the handicapped. On the contrary: one of the more touching moments of my visit has been a Bar Mitzvah service in a London synagogue where the Torah from which the Bar Mitzvah boy read was brought down several steps from the high dais to a low, makeshift table so that his wheelchair-bound father could participate.

All I'm pointing out is my surprise that a government that takes such a keen interest in protecting its people from health risks and traffic congestion seems significantly less concerned with the plight of those requiring physical assistance.

4) In conclusion...

Some final thoughts: I've been greatly impressed by the security at Heathrow where police patrol the terminals armed with automatic rifles, trigger-fingers at the ready, but where I can pass through metal detectors with my laptop in my backpack, my feet in my shoes, and my children in their strollers. Just try doing that at any American airport.

My visit also coincided with a pivotal and emotional game in the "Ashes" cricket series between Australia and England. While I still find the game bewildering, and while I greatly prefer our baseball, I've begun to develop a taste for the beauty and intricacy of the wickets, thanks to the patient explanation offered by our hosts.

And finally, the ever-scrutinizing British press (and public) has alternated between sincere sympathy and scathing criticism in its coverage of and reactions to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

I could go on, but I'd rather enjoy the atypically hot, beautiful London weather.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributing writer, is an attorney in San Diego.


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