Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Liberal England: Going Up in Smoke

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?

14 comments:

Martin said...

Neil,

You write,

"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?"

The rationale of all such conduct is the same.

It's for the kids...

cpdxs said...

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?

Actually, England is belatedly aping the vast majority of other European countries, something you curiously omit to mention. And the smoking ban seems to have been a roaring success in precisely those countries where trouble was expected - most notably Ireland.

(Cue a post from Neil about how Ireland was a hotbed of Nazi sympathy in the 1940s, Italy was one of the Axis powers, etc. etc. etc.)

Nick said...

For once (and this doesn't happen often) I agree with you completely.

Although I don't smoke now (I did for around 3 decades), the idea of forcing other people not to is anathema to me. Whatever happened to 'live and let live' (or even live and let die, I suppose) in Britain? Intolerance seems to be rife in the country. It's a sad thing to say, but I'm glad I no longer live there.

Neil Clark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Clark said...

"Actually, England is aping the vast majority of other European countries" says cpdxs.
Actually, no it isn't. Belgium hasn't introduced such a draconian ban, France hasn't (yet), Germany hasn't, Spain hasn't, Austria hasn't, Switzerland hasn't, the countries in eastern europe haven't (or don't they count?)
Since when do Ireland, Scotland, and Norway constitute 'the vast majority of other European countries'

Nice to see that we can agree about something Nick!
Britain has become shockingly intolerant in recent years. And an incredibly bossy place too.

Frosty the Snowman said...

Although I don't smoke now (I did for around 3 decades), the idea of forcing other people not to is anathema to me.

How are you being "forced not to"? You're still free to smoke in the open air or in your own home - just not to pollute enclosed public spaces with carcinogenic fumes.

As for Neil's hilarious evocation of Godwin's Law, I believe the Nazis were pretty keen on capital punishment and making the trains run on time.

So that's two issues in which Neil is firmly in sympathy with the Nazis, though I'd best not use a metaphor of smoke and fire here, as it might be a trifle tactless.

King Tut said...

Here's a handy list of the current situation across Europe. "The vast majority" is an exaggeration (for now), but far more European countries impose significant bans than Neil is implying - and many more will join them in the next 18 months or so.

Then again, weren't people saying Neil should emigrate to Belarus? Maybe this is a heaven-sent excuse?

Neil Clark said...

'The Nazis' were pretty keen on capital punishment'- yes frosty capital punishment of political opponents,Jews, Roma, socialists, handicapped people, in fact anyone who got in the way.
There's a world of difference between that and supporting capital punishment for convicted murderers in a rule of law democracy.
Ass for making the trains run on time, you can achieve that without the Gestapo, just go to any country in mainland Europe today.

Neil Clark said...

You clearly haven't read the article you sent through king tut.
Only Albania, Finland, Scotland and Wales, Iceland and Ireland have total bans of the type that will be introduced here. The British ban is more comprehensive than even the ban in Norway. All the other countries in Europe have opted for a compromise in one shape or form. Why didn't we?

sally said...

I'm with you on this one Neil. I'm not a heavy smoker but I do enjoy a smoke when I'm out. In the winter that'll mean standing outside in the freezing rain. Smokers are treated like lepers today, while the government treats real criminals with kid gloves.

le petit prince said...

Can I assume that this hysterical diatribe means that you've finally come to your senses and renounced socialism?

Because what I'm seeing here is a passionate argument for personal freedom and an equally unambiguous denunciation of an over-mighty state imposing its will on its citizens for the (alleged) good of the masses. Can the smoking ban really have caused you to ditch all your political principles?

Don't get me wrong - it's an entirely good thing that you're backing away from the most murderous ideology of the past century and championing the rights of the individual instead, but it does seem a little surprising coming from you.

Jim Bliss said...

Hi Neil,

as both a liberal and a supporter of the smoking ban, I felt your post completely missed the point of the legislation which is to protect workers.

My comment, though, ended up being quite long, so I've posted it as an entry on my own blog.

If you're interested, you can find it at:
http://numero57.net/?p=174

All the best, jim.

Shuggy said...

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.

Absolutely. An impeccable liberal argument that I wholeheartedly agree with. And then you went and spoiled it with all this stuff about the death of liberal England, Nazis and so on.

The Nazi thing is the genetic fallacy. As for the liberal England thing - if you're committed, as you seem to be, to the 'harm principle' that would understand smoking that didn't affect anyone who didn't consent to it to be a 'self-regarding' action, why not date the death of liberal England in 1971? This being when the Misuse of Drugs Act was past.

Neil Clark said...

le petit prince:
I am a socialist because I believe it enhances personal freedom and true individualism. Have you ever read 'The Soul of Man under Socialism' by Oscar Wilde? I'd recommend it if you think that unrestricted capitalism is the best champion of the rights of individuals. Capitalism enslaves us by making us obsessed with things and material wealth. There is a line in a certain book called 'Le Petit Prince'(!) which says "what is essential is invisible to the eye". I'd go along with that. Capitalism says what is 'essential' is visible to the eye. That's the trouble with it.