Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The smoking ban and personal freedom

This week's debate between myself and the Nameless Tory.

I would suggest debating ID cards but we are agreed on that one so it would be more you and me ranting at the incompetence of the Labour government and the fact that it is a staggeringly poor piece of legislation than a debate.

So instead – the total ban on smoking – your thoughts.

To get the ball rolling I think the first government to impose a total ban on smoking on a section of its population was the Nazi regime.

The government of Bhutan has a complete smoking ban in place. I suppose you could call them a benign dictatorship. Very few people there are smokers anyway, so I think they are trying to nip a potential public health problem in the bud before it occurs.

It is undeniable that a total ban on smoking in public places WILL improve health. It will cut consumption for most smokers, help others give up, and stop the effects of passive smokers on you and me. As an asthmatic, surely that can olnly be a good thing. I have just got back from Rome, where a similar ban is in place, and we all noticed that we felt better in the morning and our clothes did not stink, as a result of smoke-free bars. Same in Dublin.

Now, let us consider the issue of personal freedom. A lot of people say this is an infringement of liberties. BUT, one can still smoke at home, and unlike alcohol (to which tobacco is often compared), beer cannot be passively consumed and thereby damage the health of those nearby*. As an ex-barman I can tell you that staff will appreciate this. Remarkably few people, compared the rest of Europe, smoke in this country anyway.

On a personal note, my mate Nick (who you must meet some time, top chap, and a very incisive thinker) has been trying to give up for years. He is very annoyed that they have banned fags but he does think it may help him give up as he only smokes a) when he's in the pub or b) when he's doing exams. SO, if he passes all his patent exams this year, he can knock his rolly habit on the head.

Hang on, where the bloody hell am I supposed to smoke all my cigars now? Oh a*se.

* - discounting behavioural issues!

I agree - it will increase the health of the general population. Passive smoking is a serious health issue (as the death of Roy Castle proved) and some mornings after a heavy session in the pub I find myself craving a cigarette. Also, if smokers are forced not to smoke when they are in public places then it cannot help but cut down on their intake and therefore the damage they are doing to their bodies. I tend to ignore cosmetic issues though, so the smell of clothing in the morning is irrelevant to me as an argument for the ban just as the supposed “atmosphere in pubs being partly down to cigarette smoke” argument against the ban is also irrelevant.

The issue of freedom is the key for me here. Do we have the right to harm our own bodies, be it through smoking, through alcohol etc? I would argue yes. But we don’t have the right to inflict damage on others, which smoking undeniably does. But then again, we know that pubs are smoky environments, so if we go into them, we accept the risk of passive smoking, surely? One compromise might have been to have, for each licensed pub that allows smoking, a requirement for councils to license a pub that does not. But the wider question of freedom is interesting and concerning when you look at the government legislation over the past two weeks – religious hatred bill, ID cards, smoking ban and the return of the terrorism bill – they are cutting back on what we can do, think and say. They are also trying to register us by the back door with ID cards. Now I am not claiming that there is any particularly nefarious reason for Blair doing all this – I think he is just doing it to claim he has done something even though he is ducking key issues like the failure of the NHS and the education system. But he is also being hopelessly naïve – just because his reasons for restricting freedom seem right to him does not mean that the next guy will have similar views. Again, Lenin and Stalin. The road to hell…

I was thinking of changing the fledgling UK Democratic Party into the UK Democratic Forum – where intelligent people from very different backgrounds can debate key issues and hopefully come up with well thought through suggestions for potential policy.

Is it not a general feature of government that as laws creep on, freedom is generally eroded? Did the last Conservative administration cut away swathes of old legislation? Has any government ever actively attempted to curtail its own control? This is a genuine question, you know more about politics than me!

Imagine that as a manifesto. 'We won't make new laws - we'll hack away old ones.' Four years of nothing but chopping through swathes of red tape. I like that idea.

Back in the days when I was naïve enough to want to be an elected politician I always thought that would be part of my manifesto. Going into power and looking at every department, every civil servant, and saying – “Justify yourself if you want to exist. If you can’t, you will cease to be government funded.”

The question of governments relinquishing control is an interesting one. In general the trend is towards more centralisation and more control. Although it can be swings and roundabouts. The Thatcher government cut back on legislation from the Wilson/Callaghan years that controlled unions by increasing legislation that suppressed them. But generally there is a groundswell of approval in the US for administrations that cut back on government control. Take Nixon’s policy of block grants for example. Instead of giving states money and telling them how to spend it, he gave them blocks of money and let them spend it in whatever way they saw fit. And Reagan, G H W Bush and G W Bush were all elected on platforms that promised a reduction in government control. Quite how that fits in with Bush Jnr’s policies like the Patriot Act and the ever increasing restrictions on abortion and stem cell research I don’t know. And G H W Bush backed a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.

It tends to work out that as one freedom is lost another is gained, and there is a lot of truth in the old adage that the price of liberty is constant vigilance. The ID card bill got through, but it was a drastically watered down piece of legislation – partly owing to the opposition in both houses of parliament and also owing to the work of the likes of No2ID.


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