There is no better place to study state intrusion on personal freedom than in a pub. Why can’t I go down the road and get a drink and a smoke whenever I want, asks Joe Citizen? His friend answers, because you make a mess and a noise. You get drunk and you die of cancer and my taxes have to pick up the pieces. Tough, cries Joe Citizen. You do things that cost me money, like drive, get fat and have children. You get off my back and I’ll get off yours. Otherwise let’s live and let live — or at least let’s hack a compromise.
That in a nutshell was the argument last week in cabinet. I imagine it was repeated in every pub in the land. This was not passive politics. It was politics lit, smoked, inhaled and blown in every face and was all the better for it. Nor was the outcome as absurd as critics have portrayed.
Smoking with food is unpleasant to almost everyone. Legislate to avoid it. Blowing smoke in other people’s faces at the bar is nasty. Discourage it. But sitting with friends over a pint and a cigarette, an experience enjoyed by millions, is hardly a ricin attack on the nation state.
ninme fondly reminisces
This government has wanted to penalise smoking but encourage drinking, in part because (like any “Tory” government) it loves brewers and in part to discourage drug use among the young. In the latter case the policy has failed.
The absence of any fiscal regulation of drugs has sent prices plummeting and consumption soaring.
So much for a regulated free market. Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, sees these things differently. Her response to a social evil is to ban it. She wanted an outright ban on all smoking in enclosed places. I have no doubt that she would like to ban smoking in public parks, beaches, pavements, dinner parties, therapy sessions and houses occupied by children. She is already banning half the school menus in England. Just as nobody is as right wing as a former communist, so nobody is as dirigiste as a lapsed libertarian. Why as health secretary she is so tough on nicotine but so lax on alcohol, cannabis and hard drugs is a mystery.
Last week others in cabinet, said to include the prime minister, the foreign secretary and the defence secretary, reacted to Hewitt with what was for them a sudden and astonishing concern for individual freedom. Smoking might be offensive and cost the National Health Service billions, they apparently said, but so what? It saves the NHS billions by killing smokers young. Lots of things are unpleasant and unhealthy which we do not ban, from hamburgers and alcopops to jet skis and Oasis.
Smoky pubs are not prisons. Attendance in them is not compulsory. Let liberty reign, cried Blair and his friends, as if about to charge naked round the cabinet room and draw deep on a spliff.
Yet the resulting compromise is a triumph only for bureaucrats. Her Majesty’s government must now, by parliamentary order, define Her Majesty’s “bar area” and measure the extent of Her Majesty’s “smoke exclusion zone”. It must define Her Majesty’s pub food, whether by volume, packaging, brand or perhaps, if Hewitt has her way, nutritional content.
I’d get stuck into my lil’ smoking-in-bars rant, but there’s just no good way to defend something like that without coming off as an emphysema patient in denial. Maybe some other time.