Norman Baker MP, liberalism and bicycle helmets

You may not have heard of Norman Baker. He is the member of parliament for the town of Lewes in East Sussex. He is also a junior minister in the Department of Transport. Among his responsibilities is the promotion of cycling. Admirably, he cycles himself – he’s not one of those ‘do what I say, not what I do’ politicians.

Norman Baker is also a member of the Liberal Democrat party, a party that despite currently forming a coalition with the Conservative Party, thinks of itself as the heir to the great liberal tradition of British political thought, from John Locke to John Stuart Mill and beyond. As such we should expect that he espouses liberalism. One of the essential questions of liberalism is framed by Isaiah Berlin:

“What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?”

Norman Baker, like most British cyclists – and Dutch and Danish cyclists, come to that – rides a bicycle without wearing a helmet. Yet he has recently been the subject of criticism in the media for saying so.

He has not told anyone else what they should do, rather he has explained that he’s made his own decision on the matter, and others are free to do the same. A very liberal point of view.

In choosing to ride without a helmet, it seems Norman Baker is not alone among politicians.

David Cameron and George Osborne ride bikes

Boris Johnson and Arnold Schwarzenegger ride bikes

George (Lord) Young rides a bike - 14 miles a day from Acton to Westminster and back, pigeons permitting

Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) rides a bike

Tory grandee Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham) rides a bike, wearing a bowler

And it’s not just Tory toffs and Austro-Californian hard men who choose to enjoy the wind in their hair.

Nicolas Sarkozy rides a bike

Barack Obama rides a bike

Norman Baker is making the case for the freedom to choose. And one of the things about freedom is that we are free to choose differently.

George W Bush rides a bike

8 thoughts on “Norman Baker MP, liberalism and bicycle helmets

  1. I guess we can see which side of the great helmet debate you’re coming down on. Nicely done, too, but I really dislike seeing anything that suggests wearing a helmet makes you stupid. It doesn’t. Helmets provide protection. You’re not hugely likely to need it so by all means take that fairly small risk and don’t wear one, but as a dad of bike-loving children it’s very apparent to me that they are more likely to come off at a relatively low speed, and a helmet is really very useful in protecting their little noggins in such an eventuality, so I very much want to see them wearing them.
    Grown ups, make your own choice and be safe, but I’d like to point out that riding helmet-less is not the intelligent, informed choice. It’s just one of them.

  2. @Mark: thanks for your comment. It wasn’t my intention to imply that anyone who wears a helmet is stupid, or looks stupid. I respect freedom to choose, absolutely. Sometimes I wear a helmet, but mostly not.

    I guess I could have posted this picture of Obama as well or instead:

  3. I personally wouldn’t even think of getting on a bicycle without a helmet after having both a good friend and a co-worker die after landing on their heads while riding. But, as strongly as I feel about it personally, I would never try to push my beliefs on to others. Everybody needs to make their own choices on a wide range of issues, not just the health of their noggins.

  4. Although I don’t always take the social commentary liberal point-of-view, I have to agree with the article in this particular instance. A person should have the “freedom to choose” on whether to take the safety precaution of wearing a helmet—it shouldn’t be a law. This reminds me of when Ronald Reagan said “I believe in a government that protects from each other, I don’t believe in a government that protects us from ourselves”.

  5. The picture of Obama riding a bike-cycle, wearing a helmet is surreal. I personally don’t wear a helmet when riding my mountain bike, although I know I probably should; I may regret it one day. I agree with some of the previous comments in regards to having the freedom of choice to wear a helmet. However, I don’t always advocate freedom of choice, for instance; Motorcycle drivers—in my opinion—should be forced to wear a helmet, mainly because of how dangerous it can be. I base this on statistics. Either way, I appreciate any post that inspires a educational, thought-provoking debate.

  6. Seeing Cameron, casually taking a bike ride, as though he’s human, really annoys me. The man gives me the creeps.

    Though to be honest, none of them look right, doing day to day things, like riding a bike! haha

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