By their bans ye shall know them

In its final months, the British government secures its legacy of petty authoritarianism by announcing plans to extend the smoking ban
David Bowden
18 February 2010

By their bans ye shall know them. It is interesting seeing New Labour struggling, in what are almost certain to be its last few months in power, to try to leave behind a legacy. With their thirteen years likely to be remembered for the War on Terror and the financial crisis, and leaving behind a political sphere demoralised by the expenses scandal, today’s political class are desperate to find their one defining impact on British politics. Somewhat inevitably the answer they’ve found lies in what has probably been their most cynical contribution to policy: the hyper-regulation of daily life.

Blanket bans and behaviour modification are not unique to the last decade or so, but the extent to which they have given the current governing party a sense of political purpose has been striking. From the introduction of ASBOs and CRB-checks to the use of equality legislation to end the racist membership policies of the BNP, there has been no social problem too big or too small to be solved by a deft piece of legislation.

This attitude can be seen most clearly in the public health campaign to stop people smoking. From the extraordinarily draconian scope of the smoking ban of 2007 to the shock-tactics of the adverts (which currently feature the creepy spectacle of children singing governmental policy at you), the mantra of making the UK ‘Smokefree’ has been a considerable source of pride for self-styled progressives. So it was not surprising to hear Health Secretary Andy Burnham’s plan to halve the number of smokers by 2020 by extending the ban further, with measures of ‘denormalisation’ such as stopping smokers huddling outside building entrances.

What was surprising was how little supporters of the plan hid behind the public health defence, and how quickly it slid into ‘Think of the children’ rhetoric. This was not about the shaky science around passive smoking: it was instead explicitly about ensuring today’s children did not grow up into adult smokers. Everything from the colourful packaging to parents having a crafty fag on the school run is to be clamped down on. Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, even wanted smoking to be banned entirely from British made TV programmes. “Only recently, Deidre Barlow is Coronation Street was seen smoking and lecturing another character,” he said, warning that this could make smoking “seem glamorous to young, impressionable people.”

If Deidre Barlow poses a risk to anyone, it is probably the clearly infatuated Professor Field’s better half. But generally the arguments around passive smoking have been eased in favour of protecting the children and ourselves from its potential harms. Last year New York’s health commissioner Thomas Farley admitted that plans to ban smoking in public parks had negligible health benefits to non-smokers but had a great role in helping to denormalise smoking in the eyes of the kids.

On their own, these measures reveal a rather dim view of adult responsibility. Smoking is of course an activity allowed only to adults – the legal age has been raised to 18 -  and, however much you may disapprove of it, is something which they now undertake knowing the risks. For all of the evil weed’s addictive power, it is also something which adults are regularly able to give up – with difficulty and sometimes requiring help, yes, but let’s not forget that people did so long before they were denormalised into it.

The implication of many of these arguments is that adult smokers themselves are little more than children who need protecting from their own bad habits: as if shiny packaging on fag packets or a sense of being ‘cool’ (or even just normal) by itself blinds you to the obvious health problems or even the potential nuisance to others. Worse, it encourages smokers and non-smokers alike to adopt a passive attitude to problems we face. If you find the groups of al fresco smokers distasteful, ask them not to blow smoke in your face. I don’t abandon all sense of social decorum just because I’m having a cigarette. But I do find my temper frayed when strangers tell me what lawful activities I should or shouldn’t be doing, particularly when they hide their personal objections behind other excuses. 

Sure enough, detecting a backlash to these new measures, Cancer Research UK were quick to put out a document last week warning of the dangers of third-hand smoke to children. Because it isn’t moralising if you have ‘the science’ behind you, apparently: it’s evidence-based policy. But, however strong the evidence – and ‘third-hand smoking’ is fairly shaky – how we respond to it is a moral and political argument which needs to be won on its own terms. Anyone can see that a public sphere where the first reaction is ban or regulate, rather than be encouraged to sort out social problems as reasonable adults, is not conducive to a free and open democracy.

As so often in contemporary politics the message to the electorate is the same: meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Farewell to New Labour’s petty authoritarianism – and hello to Tory nudging. The challenge for those seeking to reinvigorate a demoralised electorate is not in electoral reform or new methods of attracting young idealistic voters, but to argue for a political arena where we think, not of the children, but of the adults. 

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