A right stalls-up, if you’ll pardon my French market

Governments and enterprise do not mix, as illustrated by the pettifogging of East Herts Council. Iain Murray tells how a little pig-headedness banned the markets

Long before marketing, there were markets: places where buyers and sellers came together and haggled. Then there was classical economics, which took as its central proposition the fiction of the perfect market, where supply curve intersects demand curve without let or hindrance and a fair price is set. Then there was meddlesome authority and markets became neither free nor fair.

Levies, taxation, quotas, rules and regulations – some well-intentioned, but all throwing grit in the machine – militate against the free exercise of choice and satisfaction of demand that should be the triumphant glory of markets. It is the price we pay for civil authority. Government cannot generate wealth, so it arrogates to itself the right to assume a share of the bounty created by the productive sector of the economy. Quite how large that share should be ought to be at the very centre of political debate, but for reasons too obvious to mention is shirked by politicians once in power. But while there is general acceptance of the need for a “mixed economy” – the mix being between those in the private sector who make money and those in the public sector who spend it – there is an abiding irritation with the legion of petty bureaucrats and officials who meddle in the markets.

It is accepted almost as a truism that no nation in the EU enforces the tide of directives emanating from Brussels with greater assiduity than the British. While the French simply shrug and carry on as before, we apply each new rule with gimlet-eyed zeal. It really is rather worrying that there lurks within so many of our fellow subjects the yearning for an atom of authority coupled with a longing for the heady pleasure to be derived from its exercise. Though we may laugh at “little Hitlers” and “jobsworths”, they are a menace, and their numbers are growing.

Maddening, too, to think that the apparatchiks who screw up the markets and make life hard for the productive sector are funded by the very people they persecute. As the old ditty has it: “Ain’t it all a bloody shame?”

These thoughts are prompted by a most extraordinary example of officialdom in action.

In Dane End, Hertfordshire, a farmers’ market was stopped recently, as was another in Ware. Both were banned by East Herts District Council because they coincided with another market, in Hoddeston. Why, you may wonder, is it not permissible for two towns, some distance apart, to hold markets on the same day? The answer is that the 17th-century Market Charter says that markets must not be held within six-and-two-thirds “horse-riding miles” of each other and the council, under new manager for markets Paul Harris, is determined to enforce the 400-year-old regulation. First, however, it had to be disinterred, since it had lain neglected for years.

Mr Harris says he has no choice in the matter. He is obliged to see that the charter is obeyed. That, of course, is nonsense. There are dozens of ancient laws that, while remaining on the Statute Book, have fallen into disuse and exist only as amusing anachronisms. I believe, for instance, that it is still lawful to urinate in the street provided you first turn to the four points of the compass shouting “in pain” at each. No one, however, is obligated to enforce the rule.

Ware falls within six-and-two-thirds horse-riding miles of Hertford, or at any rate its town manager, David Walton, suspects that it does. I doubt that he has ridden across the fields from Ware to Hertford astride a nag with a pedometer attached to its fetlock, but the same cannot be said of the zealous Mr Harris for whom rules are rules. He would, I dare say, suffer saddle-soreness in the course of duty and count his blisters as nought when set against the majesty of the law.

Walton is concerned because he plans to hold a French market in Ware’s Tudor Square, selling cheese, olives, ham, breadsticks and the like. Naturally, he has chosen Saturday as the best day of the week to attract customers; but, since East Herts Council has chosen to invoke the ancient law – and since Hertford has a market on Saturdays – the Ware event is almost certain to be banned, even though it is now in its fourth year.

A spokesman for the council says: “We have not picked up on this before but now that we have, we can’t license the Ware market. The law exists to protect the market in Hertford.”

There’s the bureaucratic mind for you: we’ve ignored this old rule in the past, but now that we have rediscovered it, there’s no going back. The law’s the law, and no mistake.

Mr Walton, however, is a resourceful fellow. He is thinking of renaming his event, calling it a French fair, rather than a market. But is he aware that under the Misprision Proclamation of 1503 it is unlawful on penalty of being whipped at a cart’s tail to hold anything French on a Saturday, and that includes cheese, breadsticks, beans, windows, cricket, dressing, chalk, polish, fries, leave, letters, maids, farces, and, yes, fairs? On the other hand, were he to hold a French Fayre in Ware, he would offend no known laws other than the Doggerel Act of 1727.

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