Law is not magic – and lockdown regulations are not spells

19th December 2020

Of  course, law is not magic.

Magic is about old men in elaborate robes, in oddly furnished rooms, saying or setting down words in certain special orders that will then have real-world effects on those to whom those words are addressed.


In fact, law has a lot in common with magic – or, at least, magical thinking – and not only in the facetious characterisation above.


If we move from the courtroom to government, and indeed to the public more generally, there is a common view that to make a law against something is to deal  with it.

A thing should be banned, and so just putting some words on a piece of paper – or on a computer screen – and then saying some magic words – either

Izzywizzylet’s get busy!


‘Be it enacted by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows’

or some other similarly daft formula, the words will leap from the page – or the screen – and will change the world around us.

This is a habit of thought with which we are so familiar that is difficult to dislodge it from our minds.

But just setting out words, and chanting some special phrases, has little direct effect on anything – other than in respect of what meanings, concepts and values we in turn give to those words.

And with prohibitions, more is often needed for a thing to stop than for the words to have been typed ‘this thing is prohibited’.


For some people, a prohibition may be enough: they will know that a thing has been banned and will act – or not act – accordingly.

For others, however, the banned thing can just continue – it is just that there is a risk that further instances of the banned thing may now be attended with certain legal consequences and, ultimately, coercive sanctions.

A person faced with such a risk may chose to eliminate the risk and not do the prohibited thing, or they may instead manage or even disregard the risk.

But unless one is in a totalitarian society, the mere threat of a coercive sanction is not enough – most modern societies rely on government by consent, and the state does not have sufficient resources to police everyone completely.

Put simply: laws and sanctions are usually not sufficient to effect behavioural change.

Instead many prohibitions work not because of words on a page, or because of enforcement, but because the purpose of the ban is aligned with social norms and is accepted (broadly) as legitimate – that the ban makes sense and is for a good purpose and so will be respected.

If a prohibition is not accepted as legitimate –  if it does not make sense or seems unfair or disproportionate – then no amount of legal magic or coercive force will give effect to the prohibition.

The prohibition then just breaks down.


And now we come to the lockdown regulations.

The belief appears to be that just by making laws against social activity – either during Christmas or otherwise – is by itself sufficient.

That the government should lock down more firmly – and if the government does not do this, then it will be the government to blame if the pandemic spreads.

But typing banny words are not enough, with or without magic phrases, and there is certainly not enough police to enforce such banny words.

A lockdown will only be effective if people actually regulate their social behaviour in reality.

The government could issue regulations until it is blue in its face, but if there is a disconnect with social behaviour, then it is futile.

(And the sensible response to this is unlikely to be ‘more laws!” and ‘harsher penalties!’ – just as it is rarely a solution to bang one’s head harder against the wall.)


Law and laws are only one aspect of how those who govern us can influence and control our behaviour, to get us to change from what we would otherwise do.

People have to understand the purpose and point of prohibitions, rather than to just be expected to comply with them when they are imposed.

And for this a government needs to be transparent and credible: there needs to be trust more than law, and policy rather than policing.

There needs to be leadership.

Resources need to be in place for testing, tracing, and treatments.

Fair account needs to be taken of other possible priorities, even if those other priorities are less important.

Prohibitions and coercive sanctions still have a role – but they are not sufficient by themselves.

In essence, a government needs to govern, and not just make laws.

That is what govern – ments do.

There should be no magic to this.


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12 thoughts on “Law is not magic – and lockdown regulations are not spells”

  1. Come for the Philosophy of Law discussion, stay for the direct comparison between The Sooty Show and Parliamentary Legislation.

    Your point was true then, and is even truer now.

    Although I do wish HMG hadn’t turned the Health Protection Act into a variation of the Something Must Be Done Act.

  2. “(And the sensible response to this is unlikely to be ‘more laws!” and ‘harsher penalties!’ – just as it is rarely a solution to bang one’s head harder against the wall.)”

    Absolutely right. We heard this morning from Jeremy Hunt (one of the saner talking heads despite his record in the Department of Health) that cases were already rising towards the end of the November lockdown. His conclusion – that we need to lock down again as soon as possible. In other words, banging our heads is not working so we must bang harder.

    We have also heard from Ms Cressida Dick that the Metropolitan Police will NOT be instructed to invade family homes at Christmas to check that only permitted residents are present, so in the end it will be for each family to decide how to celebrate – or not – the coming festival. Some will feel that the risks, compared with the prospect of a vaccine arriving, are not worth taking; others that a restricted amount of jam today is better than the prospect of jam tomorrow. The government, and people in a position of knowledge, need to lay out what is known – which they have been doing – and allow us to react in the way that seems most appropriate to our circumstances.

    (And for those who say “What about the potential strain on the NHS” I would respond that in my younger days, as an active sportsman, I quite often ‘put a strain on the NHS’ with my various injuries but it was always accepted that the benefits of exercise outweighed these costs. In the same way, the benefits of meeting family may outweigh the potentially increased risks of Christmas.)

  3. This reminds me of the Soviet Union, where officials used to explain that “there is no prostitution in socialist Russia because it is prohibited.” :) More seriously, the current UK government neither likes to impose restrictions nor show signs of persuasive governance. A more honest and fair one could have imposed reasonable restrictions and could have them accepted and followed. But rightly no one trusts this lot!

  4. Coronavirus in 2020 has grimly exposed the difference between Governments that have competence and people’s trust, and Governments that can get elected with technological/media and psychological techniques. Candidates who appeal to certain feelings despite being untruthful, and then sideline or get rid of experienced officials (and sometimes experienced fellow politicians), turn out not to be the best people to manage major crises. There will be many interpretations of the Biden victory, and we don’t know what will happen at the anticipated 2024 UK election, but are electors starting to look for basic competence they can trust as well as being sold a dream?

  5. Thank you for a very interesting analysis.

    I would respectfully suggest that we are merely witnessing the interaction between an increasingly selfish culture and its laws.

  6. Regrettably a plea for philosopher-kings will not get them elected in a democracy, hence why Plato was opposed to democracy.
    Government requires competence, but at this time throughout the world demagogeury not competence wins elections. The populists are in the ascendancy, perhaps in a re-run of the 1920s/30s. This type of politics has something like a 100-year cycle, but with nuclear weapons let’s hope we can find a better end too the reign of the demagogues tennis war.
    Sadly I am neither optimistic not confident that war can be avoided.

  7. If governments want prohibitions to be seen as legitimate, then people must have confidence in the government, and trust them.

    When Dominic Cummings broke the rules and went to Durham — and then went to “test his eyesight” — he wasn’t punished or even reprimanded. Many would trace the lack of trust and confidence in the government to this; it seemed to be very much in the mode of “one rule for us the elite, another rule for you proles”.

    It surely doesn’t help to inspire trust and confidence in the PM when so many articles and opinion pieces include statements saying that his career was built on lies, that he is a serial liar. There are no elegant euphemisms for lying, the statements are quite bald. (I cannot remember this being said so directly of any other UK politician let alone a PM.)

  8. Thank you for your wise words. Many years ago when leading a Home Office review of sex offences ( the HO, now MofJ, used to do such things) we reviewed the relevant law in many common law jurisdictions and I tried to make an assessment of whether changing the law actually made things better, or was I wasting my time. Decided that it was worth it because the law in England and Wales was so unfair and arbitrary that reform was essential. However, it did seem that simply changing the law was not enough, so much depended on enforcement, alignment with social norms and public confidence.

  9. Extracts from Wizard Wheezes, Estates Gazette, 11.12.2001
    Peter J G Williams, head of magic

    “Fudgeo – The lawyers have sorted out” everything in a document but the finer details – Fudgeo to the rescue! We don’t need to agree this now: we can sort it out” later. “Spell value: not recommended, but has its uses. Especially for those drafting the document”.

    “Syntaxo – This is a tricky negotiation. If the opposition works out the manner in which these two provisions interact, they will spot” the defect “and they will walk away. Syntaxo is what you need. Mangle that (those?) syntax. Confuse that spelling. Foul up those cross-references. Use the macro to compile the table of contents. Leave in inconsistent alternatives. Italicise inappropriate words. And most important of all, ensure that the clause numbering is not sequential. Anything to avoid the recipient reading the words. Spell value: 98% effective.

    Remember: don’t abuse your new knowledge. The Dementors know where you live …”

  10. This wonderful article made me imagine a world were “Uncle Al” Aleister Crowley became a barrister. I wonder if he would have been any good at it?

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