The smoking ban, like that on hunting, shows the censorious majority imposing its views on those whose lifestyles do not fit its morality. A clear head is needed to analyse what is important here, and what is at stake – which is very much more than the right to smoke or its corollary, the right to avoid smoke.
By the time the Act went through Parliament, the opponents of smoking, and those who simply disliked it, had won most of what they needed. Smoking in the workplace was either banned or confined to designated places, public transport was smoke-free, and many pubs, restaurants and other public places had either banned it or segregated smokers from non-smokers. Public disapproval and private conventions had driven smokers outside many places where it was not actually banned. Choice, the marketplace and a societal shift had arrived at a balance in which smokers could still find congenial places to smoke and no-one was forced to be exposed to smoke who did not want to be.
If the purpose of the anti-smokers was purely defensive – protecting their right not to breathe smoke – they had won, and few smokers really begrudged them that victory.
What were the motives of those who wanted to go further and ban smoking in all enclosed public spaces, including pubs and clubs? They had won the freedom of choice for those who did not want to smell smoke. Why go on and deny choice to those who did?
Some no doubt genuinely felt it was a worthy crusade, and I am willing to concede to some extent to the conscience of those few. They include my own MP, a doctor, although the 47 Liberal Democrats who voted for the blanket ban might consider whether their party needs a new name.
The Government’s Manifesto commitment was to a partial ban, exempting pubs which did not serve food and private clubs. This course, championed by the then Health Minister John Reid, preserved choice for both premises and users – pubs could choose between smokers and eaters and non-smokers could stay away from smoking pubs. It was a sensible course both in terms of civil liberties and economic fairness – premises would make their choice based on their perceived market.
A shift came when Patricia Hewitt replaced John Reid at Health. In her usual trimming fashion, Hewitt did not advocate a full ban (she claims to have decided to vote for it only during the debate itself) but she was certainly instrumental in creating the climate in which the Manifesto commitment was abandoned.
The advocates of a full ban argued for it on three main grounds: public health, particularly on behalf of staff working in smoking pubs; an allegedly unfair economic advantage to clubs over non-smoking pubs; and a claim that pubs in poorer areas would not serve food so that their staff and customers would not be able to choose a non-smoking venue.
These arguments are transparently nonsense and only lightly mask the true intent of their proponents. Staff, like customers, would be able to choose where they worked; the economic advantage point ignored the fact that the unregulated market was already largely divided on the basis of perceived customer demand; the poor areas point concealed a particularly nasty piece of paternalistic social engineering – an assumption that the lower classes would not make the “right” choices.
Someone else must obviously make the “right” choices for them. Enter Caroline Flint, ultra-Blairite loyalist, whom a Times profile of October 2006 described as “outmanoeuvring the Labour old guard to secure a blanket indoor ban”. The article continued:
“As she struts the corridors of power…it appears that Parliament has found its very own Supernanny. “We are really focussing on understanding why it is that, despite all the information and advice, why it is that some people have that information and use it and some people do not”.
New Labour doesn’t do culture or history, but anyone who does will recognise Goodthink in Flint’s rather sinister message. George Orwell has become rather worn-out with over-use under this Government, but the deprecation of people who do not use the information provided by the state for their own good comes straight from 1984 and from the totalitarian regimes which inspired it. People who are not Goodthinkful must be patronisingly “understood” and helped to see the error of their ways.
So how did Hewitt and Flint “outmanoeuvre the Labour old guard”, cause the abandonment of the Manifesto commitment and John Reid’s painfully worked out compromise, and achieve a total indoor ban when the social and economic arguments are tosh?
Hewitt now appears a figure of fun, the Secretary of State at the DTI who did not notice Rover going down the pan until the Administrators were at the door, and the Health Secretary whose assertions that the NHS had had its “best year ever” sounded like Saddam’s Propaganda Minister crying “Victory” as US shells burst around him. Although clearly not fit for any public office, this former Director of Research for Andersen Consulting is a cunning old bat and not as stupid as she appears. This is the woman who wrote identical letters to both front-runners for the Labour leadership in 1983 assuring each of them that he was the only man for the job and asking to be his press secretary in the event of his deserved victory. She got the post. Mere incapacity for office was never going to stand between her and her determination to impose her views on smokers.
But it is Caroline Flint who gets the credit for “outmanoeuvring the Labour old guard to secure a blanket indoor ban”. How did she do it?
In the film “Oh what a Lovely War” young men are seduced into joining up by an attractive-looking lady upon the stage who assures them that she will “make a man of you”. Close inspection – too late – shows that she is hard-faced, somewhat older than she appeared from a distance, and interested only in their signatures. Ms Flint is not unattractive, younger in appearance than her 46 years, and with that wholesome look so admired by men of Betjeman-esque tastes and, curiously perhaps, by plain women. The outright ban came as a surprise to many of its proponents. I suspect that many MPs who thought themselves firmly wedded to freedom of choice and utterly faithful to civil liberty were surprised to have found themselves, metaphorically-speaking of course, in Ms Flint’s bed.
I have before me the web page of a dull, middle-aged Labour MP of whom I have never heard from some dull Midlands constituency. He is photographed pressed up against the attractive Ms Flint, whose teeth are bared in that rather threatening way which self-publicists confuse with a smile. Together they clutch a large phallic cigarette. A quick search finds another photograph – or rather the same photograph but with a different MP, a dumpy woman from somewhere in urban Wales, hoping perhaps that some of Flint’s glamour will rub off on her. The wording on each page is almost identical, as if the MPs could not be trusted to be sufficiently goodthinkful without being spoon-fed the slogans. It becomes clear that Ms Flint, having signed up her troop of Labour lobby-fodder, is posing briefly with each of them and giving them the gospel to spread. “Next”, one imagines her saying, just like Maggie Smith’s recruiting siren in the film.
It was tactics and seduction, not the arguments, which won the total indoor ban. It is impressive in its way – all’s fair, perhaps, in political career-building. But there is no democracy in this.
The ban on indoor smoking is a token. New Labour is good at token gestures, just as it is good at taxing, banning and political manoeuvring. It is the positive things which it finds so difficult.
I leave you with two thoughts. One is that this ban on one of the pleasures of life does not apply in the Palace of Westminster. Enforced Goodthinking is for other people.
The other is that there is an English precedent for the ruling power using that power to ban smoking because of a personal dislike of it. James I tried to prohibit it. Along with his extensive sale of honours, it is about the only thing he is remembered for.