The fag-end of the New Labour government
As it heads for possible defeat in a General Election, what is Labour’s big idea? To ban smoking all over again.
It is not uncommon, near the end of their career, for bands to release a greatest hits collection. In the case of not-so-legendary bands, they tend to name it after their best-known hit. So it is with little surprise that as New Labour staggers wearily into a likely defeat in the General Election, it is taking the opportunity to wheel out a few golden oldies. It is not the curious mid-career blowout of Iraq that New Labour wants to be remembered for, nor that slightly embarrassing period towards the end when it replaced its lead singer. No, the title of New Labour’s greatest hits will be The Banning Years.
New Labour’s health secretary Andy Burnham yesterday unveiled the latest big government initiative: to halve the number of smokers in the UK by 2020, from 21 per cent of the adult population to 10 per cent. Measures include (stop me if you’ve heard this one before): insisting on all markings and packaging to be stripped down so they’re just sold in plain packets; banning smoking in cars carrying children; clamping down on the black market; demanding that smokers be pushed ever further away from the entrances of buildings, lest they feel even the vaguest touch of human warmth. So that’s lots of mini-bans, some banning things which are already banned, all slotting inside each other like a grim Russian doll, all building up to that much-desired target of ‘denormalisation’ of smoking.
For the true die-hard fans, however, this isn’t nearly enough. The chair of the Royal College of General Practioners, Professor Steve Field – who considers smoking in cars with kids ‘a form of child abuse’ – wants Burnham to be more radical and push even further. Sounding like an increasingly desperate Alan Partridge pitching to a BBC producer, Field has lots of ideas on how to push Britain to become ‘smokefree’. For example, he believes shopkeepers should need to have licences to sell tobacco and should be stripped of them if caught selling fags to under-18s; he also thinks that smoking should be banned on all British-made television programmes. ‘Only recently’, said the good professor, ‘Deirdre Barlow in Coronation Street was seen smoking… Seeing smoking in a dramatic context can make it seem glamourous to young, impressionable people.’
The obvious joke to make would be that if Professor Field is really concerned about young people finding Ken Barlow’s fiftysomething missus attractive, he should be more worried less about their smoking habits and more about how much – and what – they’re drinking. Except, of course, he almost certainly is. And what they’re eating, too, as well as who they’re snogging and where they’re doing it.
Smoking is just one aspect of the love affair that the political class has been enjoying with a bevvy of bans. The extent of its infatuation with telling us what to do was well illustrated by the Fabian Society’s New Year conference. One might have expected a day of bloodletting from a leading centre-left think tank as New Labour hurtles towards electoral defeat and self-destruction, especially following the thumping given to similar parties across Europe in June 2009’s Euro elections. Not a bit of it. While Britain’s politicos have been enjoying romantic trysts with petty authoritarianism, the Fabians’ attitude to the electorate is more akin to that of a spurned lover, unable to comprehend the fickleness of the public’s heart. Rather than questioning New Labour’s political ideas, the conference attendees knew they were right, to paraphrase Anthony Trollope. They just need to find a new way to make the masses take their medicine.
The day finished with a rallying session for the Big Progressive Idea to take into the election (‘progressive’ here meaning not how to positively transform society, but how to beat the Conservatives). Hilary Benn had variously argued for defeating the far-right British National Party by listening to their policies on immigration and for defending the foxhunting ban against the Tory toffs – they liked that, the Fabians, but it wasn’t enough of a vote winner. Somebody suggested compulsory voluntary service. ‘Making things compulsory doesn’t sit well with the public’, said the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan, mournfully. ‘The public are very concerned with freedom – even though they don’t properly understand it.’ But he was consoled by the grandfatherly wisdom of former London mayor Ken Livingstone. ‘People always disapprove of the nanny state, but I think you can’t get enough of it.’ He received a near-standing ovation.
But back to the new smoking policy. ‘One day, in the not too distant future’, says Burnham, ‘we’ll look back and find it hard to remember why anyone ever smoked in the first place’. This announcement was merely the teaser for his case, to be outlined at Demos today, for even more state intervention on health grounds. He has four principles to determine when the government should be at liberty to decide what we do: where it protects the health of children; where a person’s choice affects the choices of others; where barriers need to be removed to allow people to behave healthily; and where the environment can be shaped to offer healthier lifestyles.
That last principle is New Labour’s tragedy. When was the last time you heard a politician demand that the environment be shaped for human needs? That we shouldn’t simply accept how things are, but have confidence that through political action we can make a world suitable for human life to thrive? The combination of lofty ambition – and the aim of eradicating smoking from human consciousness is certainly ambitious – and monumentally low horizons – an inability to do anything more than clamp down on our personal habits – is nearly enough to make you weep.
Nor is it just New Labour trying to be imaginative about telling us what to do. If anyone is foolish enough to be holding out for a Conservative government to roll back the state, they should think again. Only last week George Osborne was talking up the values of behavioural economics in policymaking: ‘based on empirical evidence of how people really behave’. Not a suggestion that there is anything inappropriate about government seeking to modify behaviour: we’re merely going to be nudged into making the right choice rather than jabbed by the wagging finger.
Burnham’s targets offer the stark reminder that, today, behaviour modification – the idea that it’s the state’s business to alter your personal choices – is not only accepted, but has become the only tangible way in which the political class can assert itself and find meaning. Expect to see freedom being one of the key battlegrounds of the election: but the key question for the mainstream parties is not whether our liberties should be curtailed, but how. The real challenge for those seeking to defend hard-won freedoms is to denormalise denormalisation.
David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.
Previously on spiked
David Bowden wondered what anti-tobacco campaigners have against e-cigarettes. Mick Hume bemoaned the changed view of smokers and quitting and reflected on what the ban says about today’s society. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick reviewed two books looking at the McCarthyism of the anti-smoking movement. Christopher Snowdon looked at how critics of smoking bans are labelled as ‘deniers’. He also interviewed David Goerlitz, aka the ‘Winston Man’. Rob Lyons looked at the crazy world of England’s smoking ban and accused UK health campaigners of smoking smokers out of polite society. Or read more at spiked issue Smoking.