The fag end of radical politics

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on smoking bans and passive politics.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

We are used to politicians standing for a free society. Seemingly that’s old hat. New Labour may now run for re-election promising to create a smoke-free society instead.

Apparently its draft manifesto for a third term could focus on ‘lifestyle’ measures: restrictions on junk food advertising, a crackdown on binge drinking and, most notably, a ban on smoking in public places. Leaked documents suggest that these would not be footnotes to Tony Blair’s manifesto, but central to it. Now, many of us might agree that other people’s smoke can get right up your nose.

And no doubt there are those among the Cherie tendency who would love to outlaw drinking in pubs, never mind smoking. But that is no reason to make a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants the centrepiece of a manifesto for modern government. As a Big Idea, it looks more like a butt-end, the result of a political burnout. Are we really expected to have our faith in politics renewed by a promise to make our clothes stink a little less of smoke after a night out? It will bring people on to the streets, but only to huddle outside the door for a quick drag.

New Labour’s apparent conversion to a public ban cannot be explained by any new health risks associated with passive smoking. It is more about the rise of passive politics. Rather than igniting ideas of their own, today’s political parties prefer to breathe in the stale air of the focus group or the artificial public consultation. More and more, that means retreating from the big, divisive political issues (who needs another Iraq-style row?) into little ‘lifestyle’ and personal health issues.

This is one corner where it is still possible to achieve a wider consensus in our what-about-me? society.

New Labour now knows that a smoking ban can win support (with descending degrees of enthusiasm) from health professionals through political activists to the public. The staid proceedings of last week’s British Medical Association conference took on the feverish air of a political rally once the demand for a smoking ban was raised. A leading doctor was cheered to the rafters when he told Blair to ‘Get your act together’ and outlaw smoking now. Only one GP was reported to have opposed the motion.

Consultations show that Labour Party members want a public smoking ban. No sooner was it reported that Labour might endorse such a measure in the election than the possibility of all-party support was being seriously discussed in Westminster.

Polls suggest that, in these increasingly health-obsessed and conformist times, public opinion might also now be amenable. (The experience of Ireland, where such a ban has been in force since March, suggests that resistance will prove about as substantial as a smoke ring.) Little wonder that, in his search for something, anything around which to create a consensus and make a connection, Blair should now consider declaring his Big Tent a compulsory smoke-free zone.

As a former heavyweight smoker, I do not particularly want to fight for the ‘freedom’ to have a fag in public. Smoking is a dirty (if delicious) habit, not a human right. But I would rather live in a political culture of smoke-filled rooms than one where even emptying pub ashtrays becomes the business of government, and where something as petty, illiberal and irrelevant as a legal ban on smoking can be considered a big election issue.

It is doubly depressing to see such measures identified with being left wing or liberal. I am with those who originated the political term ‘left’ by standing on that side of the National Assembly during the French Revolution, in support of a secular, rational republic of the Enlightenment. To be part of the Left today, their slogan would have to be ‘Liberte, egalite – et defense de fumer’. Yet in the age of the new conformism, the only serious criticism new Labour receives is that it is too reticent about banning things.

This is not about unhealthy people, it is about unhealthy politics. Blair is always said to be obsessed with his place in history. So is this it then, Tony? Are these the sort of achievements by which you want to be remembered, when historians ask what new Labour did for people in Britain?

‘Well, we stopped them smoking in pubs. We stopped them hunting foxes in fields. And we saved them from adverts for junk food in their living rooms. We built a smoke-free, low-fat, therapy-friendly land fit for foxes.’

Praise the Lord, and pass the nicotine patches.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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

Topics Politics


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