Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
Last week, I mentioned as an aside the entertaining notion put forward by a member of the Scottish ‘Yes’ campaign that leaving the Union would ‘allow’ Scots to smoke less. One week on it appears the SNP administration has decided not even to wait until that happy time, but to launch the war on smoking right now with a drive to make Scotland nearly smoke-free by 2034. Alongside the usual public awareness campaigns, the plan includes a few concrete pieces of anti-tobacco legislation: enforcing plain packaging for tobacco products; smoke-free hospital grounds; and outlawing self-service cigarette vending machines. The plain packaging proposal has also been examined by this Government.
Both are following the example of Australia, which brought in the first plain packaging regime and is something of a petri dish for anti-smoking legislation, including Tazmania’s novel if questionable ban on selling cigarettes to anybody born after the year 2000, which raises the awkward question of why an adult Tazmanian citizen born in 1999 is capable of exercising greater judgement over their life and body than someone born a year later.
Based on the press coverage, support and opposition to the proposals is coming from the usual quarters: public-health authoritarians like ASH, some doctors and academics in favour; tobacco companies and FOREST against. Personally, I’ve much more sympathy to FOREST’s view of things: tobacco is perfectly legal, and it is not hard to imagine the self-same public health activists campaigning for olive-green cola cans in a couple of decades. The freedom to choose to do and consume things a doctor wouldn’t approve of is an important freedom, and such cases always put me in mind of CS Lewis’ wonderful quotation about the tyranny of “well-meaning moral busybodies”.
The distaste of a Tory columnist aside, there are obvious downsides to anti-tobacco legislation. In Dublin, where I currently live, the black-market trade in smuggled cigarettes is booming. It’s not hard to see why: not only are illegally imported cigarettes sold at half the price of government (dis)approved product, but smuggled packs often lack the big, graphic warnings the Irish government recently introduced, which can make just owning one pack a little visual reminder of defiance.
The net result of all this government action in Ireland, combined with the natural side-effect of prohibition that is criminals exploiting new markets, is that “Premiership-style criminality” is costing the Irish state hundreds of millions of euro in lost revenue which it can ill afford. Given the vast amount that smokers currently contribute to the UK exchequer (far more than it costs the NHS to treat them), this is something the Scottish and British governments ought to consider. Prohibition is usually a way of channelling vast revenues into criminal hands – just ask the Americans about their attempt to de-normalise alcohol. Meanwhile, for smokers who don’t have access to smuggled cigs, Australian company Box Wrap will surely be looking at setting up a Scottish branch post-haste.
…And failing schools, Scotland-style
Yet whilst the Scottish government may be opening a policy can of worms for the future with its anti-tobacco drive, it also faces a more immediate challenge. It seems that despite Scotland’s much vaunted lack of tuition fees (with the exception of non-EU and non-Scottish British students), Scottish universities are "worst in the UK” for attracting the poor, despite the dastardly introduction and maintenance of tuition fees by successive Westminster governments.
“The HESA study indicates that only 26.6% of students in Scotland are from lower socio-economic groups compared to 30.7% for the UK as a whole.
“In England, the figure is 30.9%, in Wales 29.1% and in Northern Ireland 39.1%.”
This seems to offer a stark challenge to the notion, put about by anti-fees campaigners, that tuition charges coupled with a universal loan system represent a genuine barrier to entry into Higher Education. Yet the Scottish executive is acknowledging no challenge to its leftist suppositions about university provision, with SNP education secretary Mike Russell announcing that the “statistics prove, if proof was needed, that we are right to legislate on widening access”. Plans include forcing universities to set aside hundreds of places for poorer students, as well as creating thousands more university places.
What Russell doesn’t mention is any examination of why Scotland’s school system is sending so few of her underprivileged children on to higher education. But with Gove’s free schools revolution confined to England, and all Scotland’s grammar schools long abolished, successive Scottish governments have not used devolution to make the country a champion of educational experimentation and parent choice. In choosing to try to brute-force the appearance of access at the higher educational level rather than even mention schools reform, Russell shows no more enthusiasm for challenging the problems in Scotland’s educational status quo than his predecessors.
Sinn Fein Councillors reveals secret agents of British imperialism…the Red Arrows
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, has been dealing with another series of bomb scares after a beer keg full of explosives was discovered in an abandoned car. Another keg was later discovered on Clogh Road, close to the border of County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland, leading police to close the street.
The original keg, containing a 60kg bomb, was discovered by an off-duty police officer. Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH), a dissident republican terrorist group, claimed the bomb was ,meant for the G8 summit, scheduled to be held at a Fermanagh gold resort in June.
However, despite all this excitement, Sinn Fein has kept its eye on the ball. This week their representatives on Down Council condemned a move by the Council to invite the “British army” to their Summer Festival of Flight. By which he means those infamous symbols of British militarism, the Red Arrows. According to SF councillor Eamonn Mac Con Midhe, the Red Arrows “are using Down District to get publicity for the British Army.” He also points out that “they are not doing festivals of flight in Afghanistan” and demands the pilots “tell people what they are really doing in the war in Afghanistan.”
Perhaps I hold the councillor’s constituents in higher esteem than he does himself, but I find it hard to believe that people watching a Red Arrows display could genuinely get it mixed up with the prosecution of actual warfare.
The UK, Final Frontier
Finally, the Better Together team (and possibly Eurosceptics too) got a boost this week, when the trailer for the new Star Trek film showed a Union Jack flying over London. Angry internet responses seem to divide between cybernats and pan-unionist Trekkie purists annoyed at the intimation that the future contains independent countries at all.