This piece of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.
The death of liberal England has been predicted many times over the past decade. But on Sunday, England, for long regarded (rightly) as one of the freest countries in the world, will finally mark the end of its long history as a liberal country as the government's draconian smoking ban comes into force.
There is no liberal case whatsoever for the ban; if you support it you may be many things, but please, don't have the audacity to call yourself a liberal. The argument for restricting smoking in public on account of the possible health risks caused by passive smoking is an argument for having separate smoking areas in pubs, cafes and restaurants and not for a blanket ban, which will encompass even private clubs where members have assented to a pro-smoking policy.
The government could easily have opted for a compromise measure as some European countries have done, or left it up to the owners of pubs and cafes to decide their own smoking policy. But no: true to New Labour's bossy, illiberal instincts, the ban had to be total. To enforce the ban, local councils will rely on legions of plain-clothes snoopers, ready to shop fellow citizens for the heinous crime of smoking in public. Blair inherited a country, which, for all its faults, could still be called a free one, he has left it with its own equivalent of the Staasi.
Whatever your views on smoking (and no one denies that the habit, like the officially approved New Labour ones of drinking, over-working and starting illegal wars carries a health risk), ask yourself this simple question. Do you really want to live in a country where lighting a cigarette, cigar or pipe in a pub or cafe, as English men and women have done for decades- is deemed a criminal offence? Smoking may, to many people, be annoying, silly and smelly- but criminal?
Don't kid yourself that Sunday's ban will be the end of the matter: the anti-smoking zealots won't rest until smoking is banned everywhere, even in the privacy of our own homes. Last week, Sir Liam Donaldson, the government's chief medical officer, pledged that there would be a further crackdown on smoking after the ban comes into force. "The first of July is not when action stops; it's a launch pad from which we can make further massive strides. I hope people will be behind some of the slightly controversial measures," he said. The pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) meanwhile advocates a "smoke-free world," that's free of tobacco smoke - not little things like the smoke from cars, HGVs and factories, you understand.
Comparisons to Nazi Germany are often tedious, but in this instance it speaks volumes that the first country to introduce bans on smoking in public was the Third Reich.
Isn't it sad that 60 years after playing a decisive role in the defeat of the Nazis and their loathsome, intolerant ideology, Britain, in its illiberal attitude towards smoking and smokers, is now aping them?