Brand-free packs, brand-obsessed parties
The internet exploded in outrage a few weeks ago when the UK Conservatives deleted the record of past speeches and press releases from their website and digital archives. What sinister games were afoot? Aggrieved transparency campaigners took turns to speculate on what U-turns, hypocrisies and outright lies these ‘corporate stooges’ were hiding. Some passing conspiracy enthusiasts asked the inevitable question: Cui bono?
As we have now discovered, an early beneficiary has been the ramshackle collection of busybody paternalists, well-heeled lobbyists, unelected peers and opportunistic politicians behind the campaign for ‘plain packaging’ for cigarettes – in other words, packs with little branding but lots of gory pictures of the harm that smoking can do. With the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, having seemingly jettisoned the policy back in July, today’s announcement that plain packets could be with us in time for the next General Election (subject to evidence review) has been heralded as a victory for democracy over the ‘vested interests’ of the tobacco industry. Not just Big Tobacco, either. In July, Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston implied her party were in the pay of ‘big undertakers’, too. (No? Me neither.)
In reality, this move is as politically depressing and turgid as the dark green-and-yellow packs campaigners want to stuff cigarettes into. Regardless of what you think about plain packaging as a policy measure (I’m not a fan), this is hardly a victory for political principle. After the July announcment, the Conservatives were stung by criticisms of its spin doctor Lynton Crosby’s links to tobacco lobbying. Moreover, they now fear a defeat in the House of Lords on the issue. So the party has moved to outsource responsibility for this significant area of public policy to Sir Cyril Chantler, a paediatrician and member of numerous health-related boards and committees, to spin a few positive headlines.
When one considers the often dubious arguments deployed on behalf of plain packaging – including the claim that young women take up smoking because they’re innately drawn to the colour pink used on some packs – one has to wonder whether such an evidence review is a good substitute for the cut and thrust of public political debate on a core issue.
Expect much more of this in the run-up to 2015: a brand-obsessed Tory party is gearing itself up for plenty of political horse-trading with the equally brand-conscious politicos of Labour and the Lib Dems. Sadly, on the evidence of this morning, the Tories have shown they don’t need to delete their archives to surrender any semblance of political principle when it comes to liberal policies.
David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.
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