Today, a ban on smoking in confined public spaces enters into force in England: in England, specifically, as the other parts of the UK already have similar measures in place. To me, this ban illustrates the British and, I suppose in this instance also especially English, attitude to things that society regards as intolerable: beyond the limits of the much-vaunted British value of tolerance. (See other blog entries on this topic elsewhere.) Instead of confronting and discussing openly the real causes and possible solutions to problems that threaten or appear to threaten our security and well-being, we tend to suppress them from the public domain and confine them to the private realm, with legal measures designed to ensure they remain there.
In the case of the smoking ban, this is exactly the effect it will have. Smoking is effectively now censored as an acceptable public activity, unless you count smoking outside in the street. And you could argue that, in our society, the street is an extension of the private realm; or rather, society is trying to transform external public spaces into controlled, orderly environments in which everyone can go about their private business without interference from others – apart, of course, from the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother: the censorship authority in the shape of the steadily encroaching CCTV. So, as you stand smoking outside your workplace or walking to the shops, you are effectively acting merely in your capacity as a private individual; whereas, as soon as you enter a public building, your actions are regulated by civil law.
But a ban of this nature does not address the reasons why people smoke in the first place; nor does it – directly, at least – offer any real help to smokers in quitting; although it could be said to add a further social incentive for people to give up through increased stigmatisation of their habit. But essentially, the problem is just shifted from the public sphere to individuals’ private lives. In other words, society is effectively absolving itself of its responsibilities towards smokers and their families, and saying effectively, ‘it’s not our problem now; we don’t want to know. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to carry on with your anti-social behaviour or not’. So smokers go home and could well be more likely, not less, to light up in their houses (having not had their quota of nicotine during the day), with the consequence that the potential damage to their fellow residents’ health and safety is augmented.
One of the reasons why people start smoking is that it is – or used to be – quite a social habit: a chance to share time and a mutually enjoyable activity with other smokers in a relaxed if smoky atmosphere. There is or used to be a whole culture of smoking, with its conventions and rules governing social interaction and friendliness that were unique to the smoking situation. However, along with smoking itself, this aspect of sociability has been suppressed. I’ve been reading Watching the English by Kate Fox: an anthropological study of English behaviour and culture. The author discusses literally hundreds of unofficial but nonetheless binding ‘rules’ which, she says, govern English social interaction, including many rules relating to drinking and pub culture. But nowhere does she discuss ‘smoking rules’, even though smoking has been an integral part of English pub culture for as long as people can remember – until today, that is.
That’s all for the good, some people will say; it’s about time something was done about the problem. But then this is the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach that typifies English / British intolerance: suppress something from interfering with my freedoms and rights as a private citizen, and that’s the problem dealt with – except it isn’t, it’s just suppressed and denied. And of course, part of the issue with smoking is the hypocrisy around it from the highest level of government: the state literally earns billions of pounds from smoking through the ever-higher taxes that are imposed on the habit. So the state is effectively attempting to salve its conscience and demonstrate to the non-smoking majority that it is serious about the issue; while at the same time, the fact that the measures taken don’t really deal with the problem suits the state, which is co-responsible for it along with the cigarette manufacturers themselves.
Talking of the highest levels of state, it occurs to me on a somewhat fanciful level that if smoking were permitted in cabinet meetings, this might engender more truly collective, collegial government. When smoking was widely permitted, tolerated and indeed indulged in by the majority, I’m sure that the fact that smoking went on during meetings fostered a more congenial and trusting atmosphere in which people shared more of their opinions and participated more fully in making the decisions – simply because smoking is, or was, such a friendly, sociable activity. It isn’t that long ago that cabinet offices and, indeed, council chambers and boardrooms up and down the land would have had ashtrays almost in front of every seat. When was the last great smoking cabinet? One thinks of Churchill and Harold Wilson: both great smoking PMs; the former with cigars, the latter with pipes. The era of more centralised decision making concentrated around the person of the PM came in with Margaret Thatcher. Was smoking in cabinet also banned at this time?
None of this, one might argue, really matters very much compared with the much greater threat to our public safety that is posed by terrorism – with the two defused bombs in London last Friday and the attack on Glasgow Airport last night in mind. But firstly, you could argue that smoking is a very much greater danger to public safety than terrorism, especially in terms of real loss of life – except, of course, it precisely isn’t a matter of public safety any more, which is precisely the point I’m making: government has washed its smoke-smelling hands of it.
And secondly, the official response to the ‘terror threat’ exemplifies the same approach as that to smoking: the issue is censored and suppressed rather than being dealt with in its root causes. So we have repressive measures such as Control Orders and detention without charge for 28 days (90 days if GB [Gordon Brown] has his way); but there is no compelling evidence that such regulations have any effect in reducing the likelihood of terrorist attacks. That’s what’s so ridiculous about the government being fixated about supposedly eliminating ‘radical Muslim extremists’. ‘Radical’ means ‘at or from the root’. But the root of the problem is what you need to address and grasp with both hands, if the unwanted growth of terrorism is to be stemmed. And the root is not the extreme: at the root, there are real grievances; the extremism is the desperate outgrowth from those grievances, which lashes out at a government, society and culture that doesn’t want to know. An unacceptable and life-destroying form of behaviour, indeed, like smoking.
But just attempting to shut it up will not keep the gun from smoking. After all, a smoking gun is one that has already been fired not one that is about to go off.