By John Harding
A weird mix of staunch conservatism and liberal freedom. It’s a country that can host the multicultural splendour of the Notting Hill Carnival, the diverse Edinburgh Fringe and the fantastic Hay-on-Wye literary festival. It’s a melting pot of cultures and attitudes, and a land which seems to embrace … almost everything.
Except naturism; we lag behind our European cousins with their care-free, laissez-faire attitude towards a clothes-free lifestyle. However, the laws in the United Kingdom that address naturism are clear: it is not illegal. Indeed, this may come as a shock to many. Perhaps they only ever see naked people in public when a sozzled sports supporter streaks at a sporting event and is subsequently arrested. Perhaps they buy into the myth that it is “indecent exposure” or perhaps they just believe because of their years of conditioning it must be illegal.
But it isn’t.
Not directly, anyhow. There is a law called the Public Order Act; this permits the Police to ensure “order” is maintained and that anyone who knowingly causes “distress” or “alarm” can be arrested and charged; it is a vague law open to abuse. And is often abused.
I understand the desire to have a piece of catch-all legislation. The time and effort required to pass new laws is immense and it is impossible for a Government to consider every piece of abhorrent or undesirable behaviour to pass into the statute books. Our laws would be a mess if they tried and we would end up with a myriad of bizarre laws, like the Dangerous Dogs Act or the Digital Economy Act: that aim to do good but have spectacularly failed in their implementation. Therefore, the Public Order Act exists so errant behaviour which the authorities seeks to discourage can be outlawed. After all, you wouldn’t want someone walking through London showing support for a terrorist state?
If I am being generous, the Public Order Act seeks to hold a mirror to society; what the majority in society finds non-distressing is fine, but everything else falls within the scope of the law. But it fails. It seeks not fairness but the perpetuity of the status quo: anyone that steps significantly from the meridian could find themselves labelled as “distressing” others.
At my core I am a libertarian. I see if no harm is being done to anyone or anything else, then I see no reason to seek to regulate or outlaw that behaviour. I believe in personal choice and freedom of expression. I like freedom from interference, and I see conservatism as an enemy of progress and liberty.
A couple of years ago, with some other naturists, we conducted an experiment. We wrote to every police authority in England and asked the following question:
I am a naturist. When the weather becomes more clement I would like to organise a series of naked walks around the country, with potentially a handful of other naturists, in the countryside as a protest in support of Nigel Keer and Stephen Gough.
As you are aware there is no law against public nudity, and we have no intention to cause any trouble. I will endeavour to pick a route away from towns and villages and we will have no intent to alarm or distress any one else, although obviously, I cannot guarantee that we will not be seen.
To save misunderstanding and to ensure that there is no objection from yourselves, what notice or arrangements do I need to give the Police of our intentions prior to our naked walk?
The answer I was looking for was: “Thank you for your enquiry. We have no reason to object to your walk. We hope you have a pleasant time.”
The response was incredible; so many of our respondents didn’t know the law. I spoke to a lovely lady in Cheshire, who admitted that she had to check my assertion that public nudity wasn’t illegal in her Police Handbook and was amazed that it wasn’t. Until that day, if she had encountered a naturist in the wild fields of Cheshire, there is a reasonable chance they would have been wrongfully arrested.
Others were less reasonable. My response from Derbyshire can be summarised as “kit off, cuffs on.” Some stated that they would have no issue with the proposal but if someone complained we could be arrested.
We got responses from most of the authorities and provide the map below; areas of green were where the police authorities correctly understood the law and were happy to work with myself if I had wanted to proceed. Areas of yellow were where the police authorities sought to dissuade us; they gave us warnings that they may seek to halt our right to remain unclothed. Areas of red were where the police authorities served to prevent us. I got no meaningful responses back from the police authorities in black.
This exercise was not designed to criticise the Police but expose a ridiculous state of affairs where public naturists are vilified and harassed by the very people who should protect them. It the Police’s job to uphold the law and their role in the public justice system to be fair and just.
There is no explicit law against public naturism; there is no demand from our legislative assembly for all people to be clothed in public. While I wouldn’t seek to stroll through the streets naked, I will fight for the right to do so. After all, who is hurt by a naked person strolling through the countryside?
The footnote to that exercise was that more senior people than myself were able to use the material we gathered to demonstrate issues in law enforcement caused by a non-understanding of the legislation and uneven implementation. We helped people faced with prosecution.
But it shouldn’t be necessary. The Public Order Act was surely never meant to be used against naturists? Do we really live in such a prudish society where the sight of a bare bottom can cause such rampant distress to warrant prosecution, like Stephen Gough.
Instead, perhaps it was designed to be used for situations such as last week, when a man walked through London carrying an IS flag aloft. Islamic State, a barbaric and vile terrorist group, spreading misery and death throughout the remains of Syria and Iraq, advertised proudly by a deluded gentleman is, apparently, not distressing to the wider society.
But a naked man is.
Once again, I ask, what sort of country is Britain? Confused, I’d say.
John is doing the ZSL’s Streak for Tigers; if anyone would like to sponsor me to run around London Zoo naked then I would be very appreciative (https://www.justgiving.com/john-harding10). And so would the tigers. 🙂