The Coddling of the Political Mind

Should politicians have a “safe space” away from the public eye?

Via Section 35 of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, which relates to the formulation of government policy.

The purpose of section 35 is to protect good government. It reflects and protects some longstanding constitutional conventions of government, and preserves a safe space to consider policy options in private.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, “safe spaces” are a modern invention popular with students on university campuses.

The Safe Space Network defines the term as:

a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe…

In 2015, “safe spaces” found fame as the subject of public ridicule, most prominently with the publication of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s seminal essay for The Atlantic, The Coddling of the American Mind.

The current movement [on university campuses] is largely about emotional well-being. [It] presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable…this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness.

In February this year, VICE magazine’s Solomon Hughes reported how The Department of Health was using Section 35 to withhold details of meetings between Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt with leading NHS privatisers.

In 2010, the government announced they would release details of Ministers’ meetings, called “Transparency Data”, on a quarterly basis. In 2015, data on Health Ministers’ meetings was badly delayed, before finally being released as part of huge government “data dumps” in the days before Christmas, which included bad news about cuts to services, new policies and so on. Critics said the government was trying to “bury bad news” in a “blizzard of information so that embarrassing news is hidden in the avalanche”.

VICE waded through that avalanche and put in eight separate Freedom of Information requests for more information about Health Ministers’ meetings with health privatisation companies like Virgin Care. We received a single response for all the separate inquiries. The answer was, basically, “no”: the government would not release any documents relating to the meetings.

Officials decided that “the balance of public interest is against disclosure” in every case because “there is a very strong public interest in ensuring that there is a safe space within which Ministers and senior officials are able to discuss issues freely and frankly. Putting this information in the public domain would mean that officials may be impeded from offering full and frank advice in the future, potentially resulting in poorer decision making and public services.” In other words: the public can’t know what we said in case they don’t like it. This is a safe space from democracy.

Should we presume that politicians are so emotionally fragile that they require a “safe space” away from public scrutiny? Or is it simply that the concept is being used and abused by the UK government to limit freedom of information?

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