Tom Miers finds his faith renewed at the great gathering to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the smoking ban
You might have thought that it was no cause for celebration. Five years on last Sunday, and the smoking ban has sent hundreds of pubs and clubs to the wall, ruining livelihoods and rending the social fabric of communities up and down the land as drinkers retreat to their living rooms.
Worse, it has set a disturbing precedent: the idea that government has a role and a right – even an obligation – to meddle in the tastes and lifestyle choices of private citizens has become entrenched in the minds of a broad section of society. Lobbyists, commentators, bureaucrats and do-gooding politicians scent blood. There is now a veritable tide of applications for the state to regulate our lifestyles – what we eat, what we feed our children, how much exercise we take, how much we drink and where and when. Our bodies are no longer our own, it seems.
Yet on Tuesday a great gathering was held in London to celebrate the freedom of the individual to make his own choices in life. Organised by Simon Clark of Forest and hosted by Boisdale of Canary Wharf, the tone of The Freedom Dinner was relentlessly optimistic. I came away confident once more that the power of ideas can be deployed to arrest the growth of the state as an arbiter of morality and personal taste.
One of the speakers, Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, urged us to think our way to victory by taking on the quack theoreticians who supply meddlesome politicians with their excuses. By way of example she dismantled ‘Nudge’ theory and its sinister ‘Unit’ at Number 10 with its patronising assumptions about the inability of ordinary people to make informed choices about their lifestyles.
For the issue now at stake is not just smoking or the government’s measures to stamp it out. As James Delingpole pointed out in his speech at the event, the stakes could not be higher. What we are witnessing now is a tyrannical attempt to impose a new ideology on us: government is moving on from taking away our power to make economic choices and is now encamped on the ground of personal responsibility. Take away that, and you threaten our very humanity.
For me, one of the lessons of the Soviet experience was not just that the state should not run the economy, but that it should not attempt to run our lifestyles. Soviet society became infantilised. As people’s power to choose was taken away, so they lost their capacity to look after themselves. The result was higher levels of addiction and alcohol abuse, not lower. The USSR experienced a collapse of trust and a plague of corruption and dependency that afflicts its successor states to this day.
Nobody in the room on Tuesday knew the old USSR better that General Sir Mike Jackson, who was the third speaker to address The Freedom Dinner. His experience of the Soviets was of course as an adversary, and his knowledge of the Russian military mindset famously stood him in good stead at the stand-off between NATO and the Russians at Pristina airport in 1999.
Jackson’s good sense and cool head prevented what might have become a catastrophic clash of arms in Kosovo. But his real message to us last week was of the vital importance of the individual taking responsibility for his own actions. Jackson’s context was the British armed forces, but his was a message for the whole of society. If we allow the state to govern the choices we make in life about ourselves, society will become weaker, meaner and more corrupt.
It is tempting, when confronted almost on a daily basis by the relentless march of the meddlers, to resort to anger and despair.
But as Simon Clark reminded us last week, the battle is best fought with optimism, good humour and positive energy. There are grounds for hope. As the meddlers expand their remit, they expose themselves to ridicule and increasing popular resentment. In countries like Holland the smoking ban has been partially rescinded. Here, politicians’ attempts to restrict the sale of alcohol have met bitter opposition.
Getting together with like-minded freedom lovers reminds us not just of the arguments in favour of our cause, but that the cause is winnable too.
More please, Simon!