For many, 2007 will mark the year that the New Labour autocrats finally achieved their greatest coup; forcing people by law - with threatened legal sanction - to be healthier. The Health Bill actually contained quite a few new provisions - it included, for example, a strategy for reforming the way chemists work, and some ideas on how to prevent superbugs - but it will never be thought of as a Health Bill, but as the Smoking Ban. Two things were notable about the ban: the pallid quiescence with which Britain’s smokers accepted this illiberal piece of drivel, and the prim triumphalism of the legislators. The second is something to which any spectator of the New Labour circus is unhealthily accustomed. But the first is far more worrying; it was the grubby white flag of autonomy.
For the sceptics, those who would condemn this as alarmist, simply look at the headlines that have followed. British ‘binge drinking’ has been in the headlines since long before Hogarth; Shakespeare’s Iago talks of the drinking capacity of an Englishman, and by 1606 the situation was bad enough to prompt parliament to pass ‘The Act to Repress the Odious and Loathsome Sin of Drunkenness’ (Vallely 19.11.2005). But this was the lager-loving lower orders, the Stella-swillers. If they were to remain sober, it was to remain productive. The fear was - and remains - that pissed-up peasants might revolt against their masters; might not be in work the next day. One can take issue with, criticise, hate even, the self-interest that lies behind such mock-horror, but at least it is a concern we can understand. Contrast this with the po-faced smuggery that accompanied the threats of a ‘Crackdown on Middle-Class Wine Drinkers’ (Ford et al. 5.6.2007).
At first glance, this seems only fair. After all, the working classes have sustained a pincer movement of attack on and assimilation of their pleasures and pastimes. Why not go after the Merlot mob? The answer lies in the intention. This is not an assault on low productivity, but on drunkenness itself. Smoking is immoral. Drinking is evil. And eating? More on that later.
It is worth examining the somewhat spurious justifications that spill forth whenever ‘public health’ issues arise. The first and most popular is the accusation that such-and-such is ‘a drain on the resources of the NHS’. Smokers are the clearest target of all those in the front line. There have been widespread suggestions that smokers could be denied NHS treatment (Wilson 28.11.2005). Their pulmonary and myocardial illnesses are self-inflicted, why should they devour scarce resources that could be used by someone whose predicament is no fault of their own? Well, because they have paid for it. Many times over. Figures on the revenue brought to Treasury coffers by the coughers lie between £7bn and £10bn depending on whether you consult the Tobacco Manufacturers Association or anti-smoking campaigners Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). Compare this to the estimated £1.5bn per year spent on treating smoking-related illness (NICE 2002).
Drinkers face similar attacks. Figures bandied about for the ‘social cost’ of drinking have reached £20bn, albeit with scant explanation (Douglass 16.9.2004). And yet comparison with the revenues raised is rarely made. This is not, lest you be fooled, a simple cost-benefit analysis. It is modern Puritanism dressed up as - extremely paternalistic - concern. Care to examine it further? Once the costs have been massaged and presented, the other ‘health’ costs are listed. Binge drinking will make you fat and ugly (Lister 26.8.2004). According to a recent government-funded advertisement, smoking will prevent you pulling, or even harm your potency (Bold 1.6.2005). To watch the advert in question made the message even more stark. Smoking will make your cock fall off.
Food has been attacked in similar ways. The acceptable end of this assault has been St Jamie and his school food crusade, no doubt from all of the best intentions (though we all know where that road leads) to make children healthier. And there is a serious point here. No one in their right mind would believe that fast food and nothing but should be the basis of a balanced diet. But the government response - to suggest a ‘fat tax’ (BBC News 19.2.2004) on ‘unhealthy food’ - is one of pissy piety shot through with opportunism; punish the do-badders where it will hurt them most - right in the pocket. Of course, no food is intrinsically unhealthy. To subsist on a diet of burgers and nothing but will not do you much good, but equally, try living on wild rice alone for a week. Don’t try it for much longer, you may get scurvy. And now, with that idea firmly accepted by we the flagellants, there is a new vein of attack. Women who are obese when they conceive are harming their babies (BBC News 7.8.2007). This comes in the wake of government ‘advice’ that suggests that drinking anything, anything at all, whilst pregnant will most likely turn your unborn child into a vegetable (BBC News 18.9.2002). That’s it! Get ‘em right in the guts. If you feed your child chips, you’re a criminal. If you feed yourself chips, you’re no better. If you drink, you’re worse still. Child abuser.
Whence this urge to suck the marrow from life? It is impossible to move without barking a shin on a public information campaign, so surely we all know now that you shouldn’t drink yourself stupid every night or cram kebabs until you burst. Those that smoke know it is not good for the lungs. When ministers say that they want being drunk to be ‘as socially unacceptable as smoking’ it reveals something in the psyche of the executive. First, they already think that smoking is ‘socially unacceptable’. Secondly, they have decided that a pseudo-Victorian ideal of ‘public morality’ and shame is the best route for enforcement (one wonders, does the same hold true for obesity? Is it their wish that to be fat should be ‘socially unacceptable’? And who will be the first to say it?). It is no coincidence that this government has been the most eager proponent of the ‘name and shame’ method of policing (BBC News 1.3.2005). It would be unfair to lay this charge solely at their door - the first such initiative came from Michael Howard in 1996 during his tenure as home secretary (Independent 8.10.1996) - but it would take a party of statists to borrow the old mechanisms of quasi-religious coercion to enforce a new secular ‘morality’.
This is the surrender of autonomy. The assumed mantle of the ‘will of the people’ is used as a bludgeon to macerate individual choice. When we are told that smokers are a drain on the NHS, or that binge drinking harms the economy, the message is that the selfish actions of the few - determined on their individual pleasures - are harming the majority. Never mind that these accusations do not bear up under scrutiny. It works. It works because it is clever enough to appeal to the basest of all human instincts - the downfall of Cain - envy. The keenly felt, righteous-seeming ire that comes from the belief that someone else is having more fun. Graft on a semblance of democracy and you have a modern method of forcing conformity without having to go to the trouble of invoking divine guidance on what is ‘right’. The ultimate aim being, one assumes, state-sanctioned, politically correct ‘fun’ with no risks, no choices, no consequences and imbued with all the bacchanalian joy of a Church picnic.
But we have only ourselves to blame. At least those making the laws have the justification that they probably think they are doing the right thing. The smokers who mutter that ‘it’ll probably help me give up’, the drinkers that claim they were ‘planning on cutting down anyway’, are willing participants in a game they have already lost. We have handed control to the Malvolios of office. The battle, and perhaps the war, was lost when we allowed them to take the moral high ground and set out their snake oil store offering health, wealth and happiness. That too is our own fault. Hadn’t we learned not to trust anyone selling those three particular magic beans?
It would be too depressing to list the number of things you can no longer do in Britain. It would also take too long; the Blair administration created 3,023 new criminal offences in not many more days (Morris 16.8.2006). This is to disregard the wholesale assault on liberty that is the ASBO, which in effect makes anything your neighbours object to a criminal offence, and - worse still - the number of things that ministers feel should be ‘unacceptable.’ Like having a beer.
Is there an answer? Too soon to say. But if nothing else, perhaps we could use our current predicament to realise what the answer isn’t. It isn’t to accept meekly every government statistic. It isn’t to give every state health initiative the benefit of the doubt. It isn’t to nod resignedly whenever the hackneyed lie ‘well, if it saves one life…’ is used to destroy at a stroke yet another individual freedom once dragged from the rulers like a penny from treacle. It isn’t to forget that each and every state advertising campaign designed to make people think, act, eat, drink, sleep or speak a certain way was paid for with your money, that you worked for. It might be to question at every stage the right of anyone to tell you how you should enjoy yourself.
Jamie Douglass conducted post-graduate research into youth subcultures at the University of Cambridge, and is joint editor of www.10Comments.com.
BBC News (7.10.2004). ‘Ten name and shame laws “fair”’. BBC News website.
BBC News (1.3.2005). ‘Asbo louts face “name and shame”’. BBC News website.
BBC News (7.8.2007). ‘Obesity “linked to birth defects”’. BBC News website.
Bold, B. (1.6.2005). ‘Smoking ruins your sex life, new ads warn young’. Guardian.
Douglass, J. (16.9.2004). ‘Measure for measure’. Spiked Online.
Ford, R. et al. (5.6.2007). ‘Crackdown on middle class wine drinkers’. The Times.
Independent (8.10.1996). ‘Taxation and smuggling’. Independent. Reproduced here.
Lister, S. (26.8.2004). ‘Women told to face up to ugly truth of alcohol’. The Times.
Morris, N. (16.8.2006) ‘Blair’s “frenzied law making”: a new offence for every day spent in office’, Independent
NICE (11.4.2002). ‘NICE recommends use of smoking cessation therapies’. National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) press release.
Vallely, P. (19.11.2005). ‘2000 years of binge drinking’. Independent.
Wilson, G. (28.11.2005). ‘Heavy smokers could be denied NHS treatment’. Daily Mail.
'Turn That Racket Off' [Opens in new window]
"…the most interesting, diverse, serious and argumentative audience imaginable."
Prof Sir Bernard Crick