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The battle of Stony Stratford

Friday July 22, 2011

A fascinating skirmish has taken place in the campaign for civil liberties in Britain. A councillor’s attempt to ban smoking outside has been roundly beaten. But Tom Miers warns that the enemies of freedom will regroup fast.

The art of politics – like warfare – is to fight only battles you know you can win. However important the issue, do not accept a set piece contest if the chances of victory are slim.

Tony Blair was a master of this maxim. Wisely he avoided trying to foist the euro on us, despite his inclination to do so. He curses his own mistake in forcing through the botched foxhunting ban – not because he cared one way or the other, but because he came out of the battle a political loser.

The same principle explains David Cameron’s reluctance to take on the EU. He fears that it will soak up so much political energy – with a positive result doubtful – that easier victories on other fronts will be foregone.

So for those of us who cherish individual freedom, it was an unexpected gift when Councillor Paul Bartlett of Stony Stratford, an attractive market town near Milton Keynes, attempted to bounce the local council into banning smoking outside.

The forces of freedom rallied against him. A protest was organised at the Vaults Bar on 16 July 16, attended by 200 people (BBC estimate). At the council meeting on 19 July, two anti smoking motions were roundly defeated, although Bartlett succeeded in postponing the vote on the substantive motion, to ban outdoor smoking, until September.

The best thing about this incident was the reaction of the public at large. Both smokers and non-smokers were overwhelmingly offended by the ban. One poll recorded that 83 per cent of businesses opposed it. Some cited the civil liberties issue, but most zeroed in on the practical problems it raised, and its absurd implications. Would people have to drive out of town to smoke a fag? Would smokers avoid Stony Stratford altogether, thus damaging business? What about chewing gum?

One of the arguments put forward by Bartlett was that outdoor smoking caused litter. Should all litter-generating activities be banned too, then? Some folk were riled that the council should be wasting money on a measure like this when times were tough and there were more important priorities.

Bartlett did us all a favour by blundering into this conflict and uniting a grand coalition of sensible and practical people against him. We should be cheered by this, but there are also lessons to be learned.

Councillor Bartlett had just the wit to postpone the vote on the crucial banning measure to the autumn. It is better to retreat than face defeat. He hopes that concerted opposition will dissipate, and that new allies will emerge, perhaps in the form of other councils proposing the same thing, or bogus scientific studies that support him. Time is indeed on his side. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

It is instructive to look at the specious arguments used by Bartlett to support his proposed ban. One was the litter caused by smokers forced outside by the internal smoking ban. The unintended consequences of poor legislation do not deter the legislators, but simply encourage them.

Bartlett also focussed on the bizarre idea that the residual saliva on cigarette buts is a health hazard, particularly to children. He also claimed that children could get burnt, although he had no evidence to back this up.

Such scare-mongering might seem a joke, but it fits with a pattern. Those who wish to restrict our freedoms are forever raising the alarm on health grounds, particularly to the vulnerable. We must expect dodgy science to come to the battleground with all sorts of claims designed to frighten the public.

The Battle of Stony Stratford shows how a broad alliance of common sense with high principle can be deployed to defeat the enemies of freedom. But the war is by no means over. This skirmish does not even open the way to a revision of the smoking laws yet. Many more, much tougher battles will have to be won.

Tom Miers is editor of the Free Society

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