Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org and a former Conservative & Unionist member of the Scottish Parliament.
It saddened me to read on ConservativeHome last week the senseless attack on smokers by Peter Franklin. In what appeared to be an unprovoked outburst, he generalised and stereotyped smokers for habitual bad manners. Essentially he suggested smokers have got the demonisation they deserve and their current sense of victimhood is little more than self-pity.
The truth is quite different. What Franklin fails to accept is that smokers have a genuine grievance. Tobacco is a legal product that generates over £10 billion a year for the Treasury, yet self-employed workers who smoke in their own vehicles can be prosecuted even if no one else is present because their van is deemed a place of work. Adults are frequently forbidden from lighting up on university or hospital grounds and campaigners now want to ban smoking in all open air parks and squares. Worse, they’re expected to be role models for other people’s children!
While the act of smoking is repeatedly stigmatised with a succession of restrictive laws and regulations, smokers have been made to feel like pariahs amongst their friends and in their own homes and places of work with the aim of forcing them to quit a legal product. Of course there are bad-mannered smokers, but to condemn all consumers as a group is as unfair and irrational as it is to berate all politicians (and political commentators).
For thirty-five years the smokers’ rights group Forest has campaigned against just the sort of prejudice represented by Franklin, often led by non-smokers like its current director, Simon Clark. It has demonstrated with a succession of good humoured campaigns and events that smokers and those who are tolerant of smoking are far more moderate and accommodating than the rabid anti-smokers with whom they frequently do battle.
Where, for example, were the bad manners at the ‘Politics and Prohibition’ evening at the 2006 Tory conference in Bournemouth when Forest ran a massive mock-speakeasy that was rudely interrupted with flashing blue lights and sirens while actors dressed as police officers burst in to arrest one of the speakers “for inciting people to enjoy themselves”? Guests quickly got the message about the disproportionate force of the state and everyone carried on eating, drinking and, yes, smoking.
At this year’s conference in Birmingham, Forest co-hosted with Conservatives for Liberty a standing room only event featuring a leading member of The Comedy Store’s Cutting Edge team. ‘Stand Up For Freedom’ was popular and well received for one simple reason: pro-choice campaigners have a serious message but they are determined not to lecture people. The tone is friendly, not hectoring, and the message is simple: educate and inform but defend freedom of choice and promote personal responsibility. Surely these are Conservative values even Franklin could support?
Forest has also worked with the Liberty League, another organisation whose supporters represent the next generation of freedom-lovers, very few of who smoke. Attempts to demonise Forest and the “smokers’ lobby” are clearly not working in those circles – long may that continue.
Instead of attacking them, Conservatives should support organisations like Forest that seek gradual reform not overnight change. They promote tolerance between smokers and non-smokers by seeking arrangements where people can live-and-let-live, a world in which designated smoking lounges are permitted, where private clubs can once again decide their own rules, and where the use of e-cigarettes (a free market smoking cessation product) is happily accommodated rather than legislated into oblivion.
I have never smoked cigarettes. They’re not my thing – although I do enjoy the occasional cigar and a puff on a pipe – but there can be no doubt that these enjoyable pastimes have been made far harder by the smoking ban that was never in Labour’s manifesto. Franklin’s claim that it was heavily supported is just wishful thinking for there was no national debate. The subsequent collateral damage – thousands of English pubs closed their doors forever in the immediate aftermath of the ban – is not even given consideration.
I expect the Conservative Party to protect and enhance my freedoms but instead I find myself fighting to stop them being eroded further. It’s no coincidence that Nigel Farage likes to be photographed with a cigarette and a pint of ale. He’s after the votes of thousands of people like me who have seen their lifestyles changed beyond all recognition by a systematic attempt to bully and belittle a significant minority of the population.
Those of us who like a Big Mac, shake salt on our chips, have three teaspoons of sugar in our tea and enjoy ‘bingeing’ on a beefy bottle of Côtes du Rhône on a Friday night need to be represented. If the Conservative Party can’t be relied upon to defend freedom of choice and personal responsibility then it will have lost two of its core values. Its share of the vote will decline further and we will need more lobby groups to speak on our behalf.
Sugar, salt, fats and alcohol are all in the firing line because people like Franklin seek to rationalise blind prejudices against people’s free choices, and that in turn encourages government intervention. In defending the freedom to smoke, smokers and non-smokers have been taking a hit for Team Freedom. Tobacco is just the beginning.
Over the last thirty years a proliferation of quangos and agencies, most of them funded by the taxpayer, have sprung up to lobby politicians for more and more laws to engineer and dictate our lifestyles. When it comes to bad manners it’s not smokers who should be condemned. The real villains are the governments and NGO sock puppets that appear determined to tell us what to do and how to live our lives.