Thursday, January 12, 2006

Liberty going up in smoke?

Growing up in a suburb south of London in the 1950s & 60s one of my treats was to take the train to London. Finding a 'no smoking' compartment was quite a challenge, there were only a handful in those days probably making up less than a fifth of the trains' accommodation. One indication that life has got better over the years has been the slow but steady increase in the proportion of 'no smoking' areas on public transport. No you can't smoke even on the stations. Such a proposal would have been laughable back in 1960 even though then the dangers of smoking were becoming obvious.

We didn't notice the smell of smoke on our clothes then because they always smelt of smoke. Mind you the air around London was pretty foul then, don't get me started on the great smogs of the early sixties, we'd be here all day. I did smoke briefly. On the bus going home, in the woods near school, furtive smoking. Fortunately I noticed that I couldn't run up hills and so gave it up. So I hope that MPs will vote for a total ban in pubs and restaurants. I love pubs and restaurants but increasingly hate smoke. The Telegraph leader writer doesn't agree. Never shy of having a pop at Labour (s)he declares: "How strange that back-bench Labour MPs, who seem so cowed by Mr Blair on issues ranging from the invasion of Iraq to the building of Las Vegas-style casinos around the country, show such bloody-minded resolve over the relatively peripheral issue of smoking." and it gets no better, ending: "Once again the Labour Party, which prides itself on its commitment to the human rights of various groups, shows that it is blind to the simple concept of the liberty of us all."

This goes to the heart of the Liberty argument. So often one person's freedom impinges on the freedoms of others. Speeding drivers, graffiti artists, railing clerics, tax dodgers; liberty and privacy are always questions of balance. The Times leader writer is unimpressed by the partial ban; "The proposal is as fuggy as it is illogical." but goes on: "A blanket ban is over-prescriptive and unnecessarily illiberal." ... "The free vote provides an opportunity. MPs should be given a wider choice than simply having to pick between an outright ban and a messy compromise." But then the writer recommends licensing smoking establishments in a similar way to drinking ones. This won't much please its many readers who favour 'small government' will it?

The Guardian leader is pleased they'll be a free vote (and wants to see more of them even though they "do not invariably produce better outcomes than whipped votes - as the last efforts at House of Lords reform proved.") but is cagey about what the outcome should be this time. But I think we can guess. Yesterday the Mirror was more straightforward declaring that: "A Blanket ban on smoking in public places is possibly the single most effective thing this or any other government can do to save lives.". Very sound.

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