Honk if you’ve had enough of anti-smoker zealotry

Labour poses as a party of the people – its war on smoking parents tells a different story.

Two news stories this week brilliantly capture the schizophrenia of the modern British Labour Party. Through the 50p tax story, featuring a gruff shadow chancellor Ed Balls promising to bring back the 50p tax rate on the highest earners, Labour is posing as a party of the people, a party which speaks for the often hard-up man in the street against the cossetted comfortably-off. But then there’s the story about Labour being desperately keen to ban smoking in cars in which children are travelling, which reveals that far from being on-side with The People, it is contemptuous of us, distrusting our ability to bring up children without poisoning and killing them. It’s this second story which reveals the true heart of Labour today, as a party whose one-time interest in the concerns of the labouring man has long since been eclipsed by a feeling of fear and disgust for that man, and an urge to nanny, nudge and cajole him into living a healthier, blander, more restricted life.

So yesterday, as Balls got nostalgic leftists’ pulses racing (and right-wingers’ temperatures rising) with his entirely pantomime performance as a Reddish politician, the shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, was busy agitating for a ban on what actual grown adults can do in their own cars. In the name of ‘protecting children from preventable harm’, Burnham has tabled an amendment to the Children and Families Bill, currently in the Lords, which would make it an offence to smoke in a car in which children are present. Even if the windows were open. So if you were having a cigarette during a family drive, and your kids were sat in the back of the car with their windows wound down and fresh air pounding their faces, a copper could stop you, force you to stub out your cigarette, and arrest you if you refused. That there isn’t more discomfort with this proposed empowerment of the state to ‘protect children’ from their parents reveals how deeply embedded the authoritarian mindset has become.

Think about what Burnham is proposing: that the state should have the authority to play in loco parentis against motorists judged to be doing something bad in front of their kids. Never mind the fact that great numbers of us grew up in smoke-filled homes and cars and lived to tell the tale; or that the danger posed by second-hand smoke in cars has been vastly exaggerated; or that smoking’n’driving parents frequently take action to minimise how much smoke their children are exposed to, for example by opening the car windows – none of that matters to a party which fundamentally distrusts parents, and adults in general, and wants greater police powers to tell those parents, in front of their children, that they are doing something wicked. Labour’s thirst to ban smoking in cars with children is an attempted assault on the rights of adults to engage in a legal activity in a vehicle that they own, and also on the authority of parents over their children: it sends the message that the state is a better judge of how children should be brought up than children’s own parents are, which can only have a corrosive impact on the sovereignty of the family and on the command of mothers and fathers over their offspring.

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It also sets a dangerous precedent. If Labour were to be successful in banning smoking in cars in the name of ‘protecting children’ from harm, what would be the next space to be made ‘smokefree’? How about the family home? I’m sure some smokers have a puff in their living rooms, maybe even with the windows closed, while the family is sat around watching TV. Should the state get stuck in there, too, and make it illegal to smoke in any home that has children in it? That would be the logical conclusion to Burnham’s drive to punish smoking parents and save their children. Not content with having colonised our pubs, workplaces, bus-stops and loads of other places with their smokefree ideology, now some politicians want to push even farther, into our cars and who knows where else. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the drive to make more and more bits of Britain smokefree is one of the key ways in which the authority of the state over the dumb plebs is being entrenched and expanded today. It’s a metaphorical land grab by a distrustful state, done under the cynical, see-through guise of protecting workers and children from evil smokers’ morally bad breath.

The idea of ‘second-hand smoke’, which motors most of today’s clampdowns on smoking, is a really depressing one. It encourages us to be wary of our fellow man, on the basis that he might be poisoning us with his toxic emissions, and invites us to buddy up with the state instead and to ask it to protect us from our workmates, our pub friends, even from our own parents. It’s an extraordinarily divisive idea, pitting citizen against citizen and setting up the state as the referee of whom may do what, and where and when they may do it. Labour a party of the people? Do me a favour. It sees us as potentially poisonous creatures, whose behaviour must be more tightly policed in the catch-all name of protecting children from a few puffs of smoke. I’d rather throw my lot in with yellow-fingered, hacking smokers than with these clean-cut bores of Westminster who love nothing more than telling us what we may do in public spaces and, increasingly, in private ones, too.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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