A victory for the inner teacher’s pet
There’s much more at stake here than the ‘right to smoke’.
Britain is going smoke free. On Tuesday, parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to ban smoking in all public places – including pubs – in England, following similar legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and with Wales likely to follow. It would be a mistake, however, to see this legislation as reflecting a cultural shift on the part of the British public; instead, it demonstrates how certain attitudes and assumptions dominate the political sphere, regardless of how people actually want to live their lives.
There are two responses most people probably had to news of the ban. One is that if it means people smoke less, that can only be good for their health, and if it means pubs are less smoky, that might be nice too. Another is that the ban reduces our personal freedom and sanitises public spaces, treating us rather like children. Both thoughts will at least have crossed most of our minds. The difference is that in our public culture the first is fully endorsed, while the second is disregarded. The smoking ban is presented as modern, progressive and above all sensible, while objections are seen as old-fashioned and eccentric. While the first thought can be confidently expressed in public, then, the second is better left unsaid, or muttered to confidantes in the pub. Nobody wants to sound like Jeremy Clarkson, after all.
In fact, there is rather more to that second thought than our public culture admits. Self-assertion and a desire for autonomy are important components of genuine citizenship, as is a distrust of bossy authority. Since the collapse of the political movements that once gave force to such sentiments, however, politics seems to have been dedicated to suppressing the more red-blooded, bolshy side of our characters and fostering a more conformist model of citizenship. Today’s political elite has no use for genuinely engaged and active citizens who actually want to shape their own lives and society at large. Instead, a ‘good citizen’ is someone who will stand up for conventional wisdom and affirm the pieties of the status quo. The demonisation of smoking is a prime example; even smokers are trained to chastise themselves publicly and mumble that they really should give up, rather than simply admitting that they enjoy smoking and intend to carry on as long as they do.
The Guardian editorial endorsing the ban hinged its argument on the notion that smoking is an addiction: consequently, people need help to quit (1). This is simply not true: every day, people who genuinely want to give up smoking do it without having the whole nation as a sponsor. After all, ‘addiction’ to smoking is a combination of nicotine dependence (which causes irritability when people withdraw) and simple habit. To present this as an affliction demanding government intervention is grossly to underestimate what people are capable of, and indeed regularly achieve without major legislation. It ought to be a joke.
The power attributed to addiction is an example of the triumph of our lesser selves. Instead of making a decision – smoke or don’t smoke, and just get on with it – we are encouraged to think of ourselves as fundamentally incapable, like the pig who begs his friends to share his biscuits, ‘or I’ll eat them all myself’. Get a grip, man. Writ large, this way of thinking means we constantly look for ways to evade responsibility by ceding authority to experts who can take decisions out of our hands in the name of some overriding principle, whether it is health, national security or economic necessity.
Instead of a public debate about the smoking ban, we have had lobby groups putting pressure on politicians – public health groups on one hand, and then landlords and tobacco companies on the other, who are clearly looking out for their own interests and consequently do less well in the argument. But what’s missing from this is the public. And surely the obvious thing would be to deal with this on a very local level – if it’s really such a big issue for people, why not have debates in pubs themselves, and let the locals decide if they want to allow smoking or not? The premise of a national ban is that people can’t be trusted to make the ‘right’ decision. From a medical point of view that might seem true, but this is not a medical decision. It’s a political one, and there are other considerations, not least people’s own personal desires.
The public is entitled to say to medical experts: ‘Thank you – we’ve heard you and we value your input, but we’ve decided to allow smoking in our local pub.’ Many of us do value the freedom to decide for ourselves whether to smoke, drink, take drugs even, or whether to go into a smoky environment, despite the health risks (which, in the case of ‘passive smoking’, remain dubious despite the moralistic consensus). The desire to assert our own autonomy as adults rather than kowtowing to doctors or the government or experts of whatever kind is very positive, and something we ought to affirm rather than dismissing as old-fashioned. New Labour’s model of citizenship is closer to the teacher’s pet, constantly doing what he childishly imagines to be the ‘responsible’ thing, than the grown-up political subject, actually taking responsibility for himself and others.
What’s at stake here is nothing so trivial as ‘the right to smoke’. No doubt if nobody smoked we would all be healthier. But what is at stake is more important even than fighting heart disease and cancer. It is our capacity to shape our own lives and our own society not through bans and regulation, but by making decisions on our own terms rather than deferring to conventional wisdom. Whether or not we happen to smoke cigarettes or enjoy smoky pubs, we must think of ourselves first and foremost as genuinely responsible citizens, not eager-to-please schoolchildren, or addicts in need of government help to get through the day.
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