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.