The impending general election in the UK has led to a flurry of thought. I don't really have an aim for this blog, only that I wanted to write something down. The catalyst was an article published today by the Manifesto Club http://notesonfreedom.com The article has a look at the subject of freedom and how the definition is warped by the recent use of Public Space Protection Orders, a new local 'bi-law' device made available by the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2014. The article got me thinking again about my 'worst-case scenario' as a naturist in the countryside...
The scenario is this. I'm out in the countryside of Exmoor. I've taken every precaution to avoid Joe Public when dressed only in footwear and a backpack. It's a weekday and term-time (so no families). I set out early away from car parks and camping grounds (Joe never walks further than a few hundred yards of either....usually). I'm happily walking along and watching out for fellow walkers so that I can cover up if I need to. Out of the blue, a 'Joe' appears and shouts at me from a direction off to one side. The distance is >100 yards. I get words to the affect of "You're disgusting....I'm going to report you". Before I know it I'm back at my car with a policeman and Joe....
I know this scenario is extraordinarily unlikely to happen in the context I've given...except...this HAS happened to a naturist before in only slightly less extreme circumstances!
Right there...in the car park...in that moment before anyone has spoken...who is the victim?
The law in the UK around nudity in public is covered reasonably well in the guidance notes issued to the police by the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) in 2013. The bottom-line to this guidance is that the only applicable law to be considered in any situation where nudity is encountered vis a naturist going about their lawful business, is section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. In the scenario above, Joe is not alarmed or distressed (the criteria for this law). Joe is surprised, angry and offended, and assumes what I am doing is unlawful. The vast majority of cases brought to court because the police deem there be a case to answer are thrown out. Invariably the police ask a leading question to Joe in order to gain the evidence. Something like "Were you alarmed and distressed at seeing the defendant?". Answer, "Yes". Job done. Fortunately this can be picked apart in court.
Who's the victim?
The problem, and the link to the Manifesto Club article (who doesn't use the word but alludes to it), is the concept of taking offence. When I was growing up, my teachers and parents taught me that we live in a free country whereby we obey the law but otherwise can live the life we want to lead. Fabulous. There's a concept I can shout from the hilltops about. However it turns out that there's an extra clause...an extra footnote that needs consideration before anything else can happen.... "You mustn't offend people!"
OK right...so I can be lawful and live life to the full...but i mustn't offend...EVER!
This came up in gathering opinions from constituency candidates for the election. Purely by chance, a fellow British Naturism member had asked the Conservative candidate for North Devon (that includes Exmoor) what he thought of the rights of naturists going about their way of life. The reply came back, "I have no real opinion on the subject, but although it is legal no offence should be caused". The candidate is ahead in the polls and is likely to win at the election due to the slump in Liberal Democrat support.
What can I do with that advice? This brings home the traditional 'right-wing' concept of freedom...the "You can do anything I want" approach to life. My walking on Exmoor is lawful, yet I'm not allowed to cause offence. Yet that secondary consideration is not written down. It only exists in the minds of those who don't like it, those who don't like seeing a naked body simply walking along....or teenagers congregating in a carpark, or ladies feeding the pigeons, or party goers have fun in a private garden.
The Anti-social Behaviour Act almost watered down the definition of anti-social behaviour to that of an individual causing nuicance and annoyance to anyone else. Wow! My local MP, Jeremy Browne, retiring at the election, former Minister for Crime Prevention at the Home Office and liberal put his name to that bill clause. It was only the intervention of the cross-benchers in the House of Lords (note to my international readers....cross benchers are those Lords who have generally legal/moral backgrounds but who have no official party affiliation) that removed the phrase and put back in the slightly more common-sense 'alarm and distress' that had been written in the existing statute.
British Naturism campaigned feverishly to get rid of 'nuicance and annoyance' else even private naturism would be doomed. That campaigning however was required on multiple fronts, since the Public Space Protection Orders were also due to come into being allowing local councils to ban pretty much anything! BN, needing to focus on individual naturism, simply couldn't do the hard work on every part of the bill, and so PSPOs largely stayed of the radar (although not out of the mind) given that public naturism is very rare. But what of the World Naked Bike Ride in Clacton? (Google the controversy of 2014 for info) How will that be affacted? We shall see.
So back to the election. I asked my local candidates about their views on naturism but I made a mistake. I sent the question from my very obviously naturist Twitter account, and from their point-of-view made it pretty much impossible for them to reply in a way that suited their purposes. I'm therefore not surprised at the silence. I also tweeted the candidate in North Devon. I will send him a link to the Manifesto Club article and ask for a comment. I won't be getting one but I'll do it anyway.
Why are people so intolerant? Why I can't we live life in the way my parents and teachers taught? Why is everything treated with negativity?
The only certainty at the election is that I will vote....and then I'll go for a walk on Exmoor.