Friday, July 06, 2007

Next the anti-smoking Guardianistas will be coming for dogs and cats

This ban is a classic instance of centralised meddling which ignores the potential of local self-discipline

Simon Jenkins - CiF

Now for dogs. I have nothing against them but plenty of other people have. They spread germs; defecate on carpets, pavements and parks; race under cars; bark incessantly; leap on to terrified old women; and maul innocent children at Easter. They are a public menace. To many, they are an object of love, but what is love to a Labour government?

Then what about cats? This week Imperial College London released a study which revealed that 25% of people were allergic to them. They stimulate asthma, and high levels of cat allergen in house dust led to a quarter of the sample of 2,000 reporting some degree of lung malfunction. This is apart from cats peeing on carpets, destroying fabrics, screeching at night and inducing stress by just wandering off. Some people derive happiness from cats, but what is happiness to a Labour government?

Any health minister who can chuck a few pestilential smokers into the street must surely get to grips with dogs and cats. And after dogs and cats, what about drinking in public, swearing on buses, scolding children in shops, and waitresses not wearing rubber gloves? When shall we be forced to face Whitehall five times daily to recite health and safety risk assessments? Come on, anti-smoking Guardianistas, there is much work to be done by your New Model Army of regulators, inspectors, licensers and "liberal authoritarian" enforcers. If Jack Straw's new jails run short of common hoodlums the new "social criminals" can make up the difference.

I refuse to let pass another milestone down Britain's road to statist perdition. The ban on smoking in enclosed spaces that came in on Sunday will apparently mean a decline in smoker deaths - paradoxically costing the NHS more by their longevity than it spends on smoking-related illness. It will remove noxious fumes and noxious people from some frequented buildings and gainfully employ a few thousand civil servants. It is the second Thatcher revolution, the revolution of escalating control.

Every medieval church in England must now be defaced by large No Smoking signs, as if Cromwell's commissioners had just ordered the Ten Commandments on every wall. This is small-minded, pettyfogging bureaucracy of the sort that demands tilting gravestones to be "risk-assessed" and covered, literally, in red tape. The tally of regulatory notices required to be displayed in pubs is heading for 50, converting the nanny state into the wallpaper state.

The smoking ban was not necessary. There was no reason why an activity that causes individuals a mixture of pleasure and risk without necessarily harming others could not be left to communities and institutions to regulate for themselves. Why should a group of consenting adults wanting to smoke tobacco not be permitted to do so, if they can avoid impinging on the enjoyment of others?

The ban-lobby figures for "deaths from passive smoking" are unconvincing, reminding me of equal and opposite figures from the American tobacco lobby in the old days. Most of the air we breathe at work and play is polluted. Petrol stations are not closed for the damage fumes do to garage workers. Children are still permitted in streets without gas masks. At least tobacco smoke is avoidable by those, such as myself, who choose to avoid it. We have no such choice with traffic exhaust, or train and tube dust.

Sensible compromises were proposed to avert the ban. These included no smoking where food is served, or at least "smoking" restaurants signalled as such to customers and staff alike. Other compromises were enclosed and ventilated smoking rooms in pubs and clubs. Exemptions were proposed for hospitals and old people's homes, where nicotine addicts are now subjected to the legal euthanasia of sitting in the freezing cold for a cigarette. Smoking is banned even in private houses if visited by council workers.

I fail to see it as an advance of liberal civilisation when a man on his way home from office or factory cannot enjoy a cigarette with his beer in a private club that has agreed to his doing so. Likewise the government bans a London club man from enjoying a cigar in a formally designated smoking room. These people harm no one but themselves. They pay their taxes and are as entitled to healthcare as the obese or the reckless driver. And how does it save the planet to have gas heaters in outdoor smoking areas, allegedly releasing as much carbon per smoker as a 100-mile car journey?

Smoking was already being driven from most workplaces. Office smokers were seeking fire escapes and front porches. Restaurants were allocating fewer smoking tables in response to public demand. Smoking was banned on trains, planes and coaches. This new voluntary courtesy was developing within the parameters of what Gordon Brown calls civic society. Institutions, places of public resort, were showing their social responsibility, without intervention from law-happy legislators.

Brown's "citizen choice" - once called bylaws - should mean such discipline being decided and implemented locally. Free choice will wither on the vine if government constantly intervenes. It did so over hunting, with ludicrous ineffectiveness. It will doubtless now turn its attention to fishing. Likewise two-way streets without central dividers are an invitation to head-on crashes. Will they be divided? Branches droop on trees. Must trees be felled as a result?

The current fusillade of central regulations mostly concerns the behaviour of people within their domestic arena, their neighbourhood. Here surely they can decide how to regulate smoking and drinking, noise and animal nuisance, teenage behaviour and the order of their public places in collusion with the police. If they want to be draconian, let them account to their local electors. My own council's use of traffic wardens to persecute what it regarded as middle-class neighbourhoods saw it thrown out at the 2006 elections: it forgot that Labour voters also own cars. This is how democracy should work. Yet such discretion terrifies national ministers.

One man's annoyance or risk now trumps the pleasure of thousands. Control has the best tunes, liberty none. There is an industry to enforce greater regulation and no one to oppose it. Or rather the only industries to oppose it are those with money. The two principal causes of accidental death and injury are alcohol and the motor car. Neither has anything to fear from this government because both spend a fortune lobbying to that end. The publicans and distillers know this to their advantage, in lower alcohol duty and later opening hours. They should beware the decline in influence of Big Tobacco.

The smoking ban is a classic instance of what central government enjoys most, meddling in personal behaviour (ID cards, NHS records, Asbos, smoking bans) while ignoring forms of social control which it understands least, family and local self-discipline. There is a yawning gap between Labour's all-pervading state interventionism, which it laughably calls "liberal", and the tradition of English liberalism which must now term itself libertarian and which, long abandoned by both Liberals and Tories, is all but silent these days.

When Whitehall drives its liberal authoritarian tanks into town these days, apostles of freedom must leave. They must imitate the early Quakers, retreat to a hut in the hills, and light a pipe of peace with the world. But the big clunking fist will get them in the end.


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