Warning: smoking bans can damage the body politic

Where once New Labour sought foreign distractions from domestic difficulties, now it is falling back on personal health issues.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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The Iraq war is still unpopular, public service reform remains unimpressive, fears of a ‘credit crash’ are rising. New Labour is desperate to regain the political initiative. Tony Blair needs a Big Idea to take him through the general election and into a third term. What inspiring initiative can they come up with to give Labour Party members a new sense of purpose? How do they hope to galvanise the nation once again, and rebuild public faith in politics?

Now we know. New Labour is discussing plans to make a ban on smoking in public a major plank of its election manifesto. Its strategists are pinning their hopes of political revival on a law to make people stand outside pubs, restaurants and other places while puffing on a cigarette. They want to light up the public’s imagination by making smokers stub out their fags. While spotty adolescents naively imagine that coughing their way through a cigarette will make them look cool and grown-up, the government now seems to think that imposing a ban on smoking in public will make it appear serious and concerned.

The Guardian newspaper has just published what it claims are draft policy documents, due to be presented to the Labour Party’s policy forum. It says that the documents, which came out of consultations involving ministers and party members, ‘will set the themes for Labour’s general election manifesto’. This third-term manifesto, due to be published later in the summer, reportedly ‘focuses’ on a smoking ban, restrictions on so-called binge drinking, and the regulation of ‘unscrupulous’ food marketing to children (1). These lifestyle issues are apparently not footnotes, but the focus of New Labour’s message.

A ban on smoking in public would be petty and irrelevant to the needs of society in any case. But for a government to consider giving such measures top billing in an election manifesto is a very serious matter. They would claim, of course, that they only want to protect public health – although as we have pointed out before on spiked, the link between passive smoking and ill-health remains unproven (2). Our concern should be that the health of the body politic is in serious danger, if this is the most meaningful proposal for change they can come up with.

Why would New Labour even consider such a step? Because they instinctively understand that lifestyle politics, and the need to regulate how people live, is the one area where they can achieve some sort of public consensus today. It is far easier to get endorsement for these measures than for anything they might propose in the more conventional spheres of politics.

There is a noticeable absence of moral consensus on important issues today.
This is not because of any clear-cut divides or great debates of principle. Rather, there is a general uncertainty about where to draw the line. The war in Iraq is perhaps the most obvious example. Where once a foreign war would have been expected to unite the public and the political class against an external enemy, the Iraqi adventure seems only to have exacerbated tensions within Britain. But it’s not just Iraq. The same lack of consensus and certainty is evident on issues ranging from the MMR vaccine to IVF treatment and the future of the BBC.

By contrast, a government focus on intervening in lifestyle issues can expect to win widespread endorsement. The combination of a public obsession with health and a self-obsession with the body means that this is one area many people seem to get excited about. Thus the staid proceedings of this week’s British Medical Association (BMA) conference were transformed into a boisterous political rally during the debate about a public smoking ban. (I say ‘debate’, but in truth it seems only one GP voted against the demand for Blair to ‘get your act together’ and ban it now.) In Westminster, meanwhile, there has been talk that such a government proposal could even win all-party support.

All of this is music to New Labour ears. Still more so, when it becomes clear that the general public too either supports or will tolerate a ban. Even many who smoke themselves ‘know the script’ that they are expected to read from, and will say that they support a ban in public places. The passive smoking issue presses a lot of buttons in our insecure, risk-averse culture, particularly when the issue of protecting children’s health is raised.

Worries about the effects of passive smoking can also encapsulate the fashionable feeling that other people are responsible for our problems. This is the anxious mood that culture secretary Tessa Jowell sought to tap into earlier this year, when she argued that measures to restrict smoking in bars and restaurants could ensure that ‘nobody will be bullied into a lifestyle they do not wish to join’ (3). If smoking in public places is to be redefined as bullying others into a hostile lifestyle, a sort of modern equivalent of shanghaiing them into the navy, then who could possibly be in favour of it?

Nobody should underestimate just how far the consensus on these sorts of lifestyle issues has now spread. Those who maintain that there would be mass public resistance to a public smoking ban should note what has happened in Ireland, where it has been illegal to smoke in bars and most other public places since March 2004. Before the ban was imposed, many commentators confidently predicted that the Irish love of ‘the craic’ in smoke-filled pubs would ensure nobody went along with the new rules. But no such rebellion occurred. Within a short while, the smokers of Ireland were congregating outside bars for a fag, some even talking about the benefits of indulging their dirty habits in the fresh air.

This is why, as we predicted on spiked some months ago, Blair has embarked on his ‘long retreat into lifestyle politics’ (4). Where once New Labour sought foreign distractions from its domestic difficulties, now it is looking for relief from its problems in Iraq and Washington by falling back on personal health issues to do with what we eat, drink and breathe. Of course, every time it is suggested that the government is going to ban smoking in public, New Labour loses its nerve and blusters about nothing having been decided yet. But it soon comes back into the news again, at shorter and shorter intervals. Even if they did decide against making it a manifesto commitment, or fudged things by giving local councils the power to impose bans, the overall direction of government policy is clear enough.

But does it really matter if they do ban smoking in public? Would it be a bad thing, whatever the motive? In fact such illiberal and intrusive measures are always objectionable in their own terms. What is far more important, however, is what this all indicates about the wider political culture in which we live and breathe. If petty smoking bans become the stuff of national politics, it is bad news for those of us who want to get real social change on to the agenda for debate. And if the public mood becomes so conformist and inward-looking as to swallow such bans as a positive step, it will hardly advance the prospects of creating a political alternative.

None of this matters a jot to Blair, of course, whose sole concern is to find an issue, any issue, on which he can build a consensus, make a connection, and assert his authority as the election looms. But making lifestyle issues the ‘focus’ of a third-term manifesto reveals a lot about New Labour’s low horizons, its limited vision of the good society. This is the fag-butt of British politics as we know it.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

(1) Labour to ban public smoking, Guardian, 30 June 2004

(2) Passive smoke gets in their eyes, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) Government champions passive smoking protection, Press Association, 2 January 2004

(4) Blair’s long retreat into ‘lifestyle’ politics, by Mick Hume

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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