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Home > Politics

All Smoke, No Fire

14 October 2005

You have to admire the ability of the government to present mediocre ideas as bold, dynamic and essential. Take the proposals on how a smoking ban in pubs would work: pubs will have a completely separate room in which smoking is allowed. In other words, a smoking room. Eureka! The UK's most brilliant political minds must have worked late into the night on that one. But while no one except the most addled 80-a-day smoker or East End villain actually *likes* pubs that are swimming in blue Rothmans smoke and carbon monoxide, the whole idea speaks volumes about New Labour's style of government.

New Labour is regularly criticised for making policy on the hoof (something that appears to be true if you believe press officer Lance Price's recent book) but the ban on smoking has a particular air of desperation about it. The first question is whether smoking in pubs merits such attention.

The pub industry has, broadly, responded to the fact that people don't like oppressively smoky environments. Most pubs have smoking and non-smoking areas, which work to varying degrees. But before the government raised the issue, we can't remember there being any massive public demand for completely smoke-free pubs.

What appears to have happened is that New Labour has somehow turned a relatively minor issue into a crusade, and is now desperately trying to find ways to make the idea workable. This is where another brilliant idea comes into play: the smoking room will have no bar and no staff. (Not that there's much point in having staff if there isn't a bar. Has anyone at Labour HQ ever been to a pub?)

It's hard to imagine politicians and their advisors thrashing out such slight ideas in such detail. More worryingly, the whole issue is tinged with moralising. Clearly the smoking room is intended to act as a deterrent, like the naughty corner in Super Nanny. Of course, there remains the danger that smokers will just sit in the smoking room and face the ordeal of walking a few extra metres when they want to buy another drink, so clearly the smoking rooms have to be made deeply unpleasant.

We'd suggest extremely uncomfortable chairs. Maybe a perpetual loop of Shirley Temple singing 'On The Good Ship Lollipop' accompanied by the sound of babies crying and dustbin lids being banged together. Noel Edmonds could be paid to corner smokers and tell them, at length, about the injustice of the cancellation of 'Noel's House Party' while breaking wind copiously.

In fact, this particularly hellish form of aversion therapy might well put people off smoking forever, but it's disturbing to see the government behaving as though it has the right to penalise people for behaviour it's decided is wrong.

In reality, it's actually very hard to accurately gauge public opinion about smoking in pubs, for the simple reason that most non-smokers would probably prefer smoke-free pubs, and will say so in opinion polls, but also often don't mind putting up with a bit of smoke either.

All this suggests that New Labour is rather too easily influenced - in this case by the anti-smoking lobby, who aren't necessarily particularly representative of the general pub-going population. The result is ill-thought-out policy ideas, based on questionable evidence, with ad hoc tinkering to make them work, all rounded off with a soupcon of self-righteousness. If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. The proposals for 24-hour licensing follow a similar pattern - and are, coincidentally, contrary to the spirit of the smoking ban: you can drink till your liver falls out, but you can't have a fag.

With 24-hour licensing the government appeared to bow to demands from the brewing industry, then when criticised came up with the dubious but strident claim that it would lead to a European café culture. Presumably the same sort of wishful thinking led to other non-triumphs of government: ASBOs, electronic tagging, penalising the parents of problem children, PFI, etc.

It's such a familiar pattern it makes you wonder what the actual legacy of New Labour will be. After eight years, the only policies that seem to be genuine triumphs are allowing the Bank of England to set interest rates - which is good for the economy but hardly the most thrilling piece of reform - and spending more on the NHS. Even then, the government couldn't resist fudging the figures to make it look as though it was spending more than it was.

It's not hugely impressive. Still, at least we'll never have to walk an extra 20 metres down the road because the last pub we went into was a bit smoky.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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