Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 2005

* First, they came for the smokers... *

If you won’t defend other people’s liberties, there will be no-one to stand up for yours when they come under attack

I STRUGGLE to understand the motivation of those who claim to be supporters of pubs, yet at the same time champion a total smoking ban. Although the two issues are by no means entirely the same, do they honestly believe that no parallels whatsoever can be drawn between the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol, and that their respective motivations and tactics are wholly unrelated? In the US, anti-drink groups are now running seminars on the implications of tobacco legislation for alcohol policy, something that inevitably is going to spread to this side of the Atlantic.

The recent debate about changing the licensing laws has brought into the open a disturbing amount of anti-pub and anti-alcohol sentiment which could all too easily feed through into restrictive legislation in the future. We already have the government decrying “binge-drinking” – and defining it as drinking three or more pints of beer in one session. If that view becomes general in society, then what chance will there be for anything remotely resembling a traditional pub?

For anyone with even vague memories of the explosion in individual liberties in the 1960s, the current eagerness to ban anything people disapprove of – pistol shooting, fox-hunting, eating fatty food, driving at more than a snail’s pace, telling religious jokes – is a cause of astonishment and dismay. Scarcely a week goes by without something that was once legal being outlawed.

Of course in general the motivations behind this are well-meaning, and arise out of a misplaced desire to protect people, rather than from malevolence. But, in the words of former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion to their liberty by evil minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding”.

It seems that today more and more people no longer see any inherent virtue in individual liberty, instead preferring the cosy but ultimately suffocating comfort blanket provided by the Nanny State. But it is essential for a free society that adults are allowed to make unwise choices and deal with the consequences of them. To quote another famous American, Benjamin Franklin, “They that can give up essential Liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither Liberty nor safety.”

Unless you are prepared to stand up and defend people’s freedom to do things you don’t particularly approve of, it is likely that all the freedoms you enjoy yourself will be progressively whittled away, and you will end up being restricted to a limited range of anodyne, officially-sanctioned leisure activities.

Opposing a smoking ban is the front line of the fight to protect your ability to visit pubs and drink alcohol. The enemy tanks are on your neighbour’s lawn, and it won’t be long before they head your way. If you believe that, having conceded a smoking ban, there would be Peace in Our Time for such pubs as remained, you are sadly deluding yourself.

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