Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lib Dems light up

The Independent highlights the differering view of the leadership contenders on smoking bans.

I remember last year I wrote to Lib Dem News taking colleagues to task over excessive enthusiasm for a smoking ban. My letter provoked five responses, all hostile, a personal record.

My concern is that Liberal Democrats, while keen to proclaim commitment to freedom in the abstract, are rather keen to ban things they disapprove of in the specific. So our commitment to personal liberty, even in the social rather than economic sphere, seems highly suspect.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we have to be total wacky libertarians, let alone die in the last ditch defending tobacco companies. It's just that when a campaign gets under way to ban or restrict this or that, I would expect Lib Dems to take a questioning and sceptical role rather than that of cheerleader. Sadly, it was noticeable that one of the biggest rounds of applause given by conference in Blackpool was to Nicol Stephen's assurance that the Lib Dems in Scotland had got agreement for a total ban on smoking in public places, not John Reid's uneasy compromise.

With regard to a smoking ban, I suspect the problem will be of accelerating the decline of rural village pubs and urban backstreet locals. The large vertical-drinking emporia will cope with a smoking ban and the young people who visit them will feel little embarrassment about standing around outside having a fag.

By contrast community pubs, which often double up as shops or post offices, may find the regulars who sustain them drifting away if it is no longer possible to sit in peace and comfort to have a drink and a smoke with friends. And of course if more of these local pubs do close down, you can bet that Lib Dem councillors and MPs will lament the loss of important local amenities, even as they congratulate themselves on supporting the smoking ban.

To declare my interest – I am currently having another go at giving up smoking. But being married to a non-smoker, I have probably not had a cigarette in a public place that might be covered by the ban for many years now. I actively seek out the non-smoking bits of pubs and restaurants. A smoking ban is not a matter of fundamental liberal principle. It is perhaps an idea whose time has come. But I would like to see our party be a little more aware of the poential drawbacks. Our attitudes to it do say something about whether we are at heart libertarian or authoritarian.


frvfvsdvdsv said...

You are not alone. It seems abundantly obvious that a Liberal smoking policy would be:
1. Compel publicans and restuaranteurs to provide clean air for non-smokers and staff
2. Allow the same to provide smoking areas if they so wish, provided they don't interfere with 1. above. Simple really. I am indebted to Cicero for providing me with the exact wording of this quote: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant" John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

James said...

I would agree as well. But the problem is not in this piece of legislation per se, which is genuinely arguable, but other things such as licensing laws, smacking and other issues where the onus is far more on personal responsibility.

Angus J Huck said...

I see nothing "illiberal" about a smoking ban (currently proposed for enclosed public spaces). In fact, I would like to see it extended to include ALL public spaces (such as pavements, parks, open spaces, etc).

Smoking is harmful to health. It is also a serious nuisance. I see no possible justification for requiring innocent people to breathe someone else's vile, carcinogenic stench. And that is what public smoking means.

Are laws banning coal fires illiberal? Or laws requiring sewage farms to minimise the escape into the atmosphere of unpleasant odours? Or laws preventing animal carcases being heaped up in open yards?

One of the effects of the smoking ban will be to reduce the profitability of the tobacco industry, and that must be welcomed. It would be nice to see the tobacco bosses bankrupt and living in the gutter. But the demise of their industry will be enough.

It will save millions of lives and make the use of public space a more pleasant and less stressful experience.

(By the way, what does the University of Bristol have to say about accepting millions from the Wills family over the years?)

Tristan said...

To be what I view as liberal any ban on smoking should be such that it bans smoking where there are people who have no choice but to be there. Current thinking seems to say this is applicable to pubs as the staff have no choice but to be in a smokey environment (whether this is true or not is a subject of great debate, can they just get another job or not?)
In this case, having seperate a smoking section which staff do not have to enter or can enter with sufficient protection from the smoke.

A ban on all smoking is illiberal. An individual adult should have the right to decide whether they want to smoke, just as they do with drinking or eating chocolate oranges.
We are not, and should never be, in the business of policing people's personal habits and choices, we leave that to the other parties.

Lastly: We cannot ban something because we find it unpleasent. The only reason I can support any sort of ban in enclosed places is that there is strong evidence that the effects on the health of breathing in second hand smoke are harmful, and that there are situations where people cannot avoid being in that place. That is the measure that should be used:
1) Does it cause demonstrable harm?
2) Are people forced to be exposed to it?

Iain said...

I agree with Steve Guy's original comments. My experience of going into pubs is that very often bar staff are keen to get away from the bar area to have a crafty fag.

Of course it only takes one person whose preferred occupation is to work in a bar, but who really hates the smoke for the issues of having no choice to arise.

But as more and more pubs designate more and more of their internal space as no smoking I wonder how much of a problem this really is.

Angus J Huck said...

Bar staff tend to be people who are unable to find employment anywhere else. They are paid the minimum wage and have few workplace rights. It is a little bit romantic to say that they are exercising "free choice" to work where they do.

I disagree that it is illiberal to suppress nuisance. We have a crime and a tort of public nuisance which goes back at least to the 16th century, and has been used as a catch-all where no other law will work.

If somebody does something which affects the comfort of a class of Her Majesty's subjects, there is good precedent for the state stepping in to put a stop to it.

Would we accept people defecating in the street?

And what about public nudity?

Or pornographic magazines placed in shopfronts?

Or al fresco sex?

Smoking, like sex and defecation, should be confined to the privacy of one's own home, or some designated location.

MatGB said...

And what about public nudity?
I have no problem with naturism, and thought the bloke walking the country nude was brave and principled. Wouldn't do it myself, but not for me to condemn another. Bare naked flesh. Who does it hurt?
Or pornographic magazines placed in shopfronts?
You get this in most EU countries, why not here? Where's the problem? What's wrong with being naked?
Or al fresco sex?
Fun. With the right person, of course.

If somebody does something which affects the comfort of a class of Her Majesty's subjects, there is good precedent for the state stepping in to put a stop to it.
My confort is affected by my neighbour revving his motorbike when trying to fix it. We should stop that?

The local fishermen cause a stink of fish on the harbour, it discomforts my nose, should we stop that to?

Precedent doesn't make something liberal. There's precedent for hanging, we don't do that anymore.

Angus J Huck said...

MATGB, I can answer two of your questions.

Your neighbour revving up his motorbike could be a private nuisance. It would depend how noisy it is, and how often he does it. If it unreasonably affects the enjoyment of your land you can go to the County Court and obtain an injunction requiring him to desist.

Processing fish is more difficult. It is probable this would be a public nuisance. It might be actionable. But there is likely to be a raft of statutory regulation controlling what fishermen can and cannot do.

I have no objection to pornography, as long as it is not imposed on those who do not wish to view it (eg, by being displayed in shopfronts). (And pornography isn't just nudity. I is also people performing fellatio, ejaculating, etc.)

A lot of people find public nudity offensive, and I can understand this. The best solution is to have designated locations (such as part of Studland Beach) where nudity is permissible, as long as there is sufficient warning given to those who do not wish to witness it.

There is no precedent for hanging, since it was abolished by statute. There is plenty of precedent for private and public nuisance, and the rule in Ryalnds v Fletcher, since there is a plethora of authority, including a couple of recent House of Lords cases.

Nuisance is about indirect interference with land. Trespass is about direct interference. The former originated in the Court of Common Pleas, the latter in the Court of the Kings Bench.