Monday, February 20, 2006


I Just Don’t Like Banning Things

I’d like to praise Colin Breed, Jeremy Browne, Ed Davey, David Howarth, Mark Oaten, Lembit Öpik, Adrian Sanders and John Thurso. I’m delighted to take this opportunity, as there are at least a couple of these Lib Dem MPs who you won’t catch me praising very often (though more amongst them are generally excellent). It’s because they were the ones who voted against the smoking ban last week, and I just don’t like banning things. Every time the sentence “Liberal Democrats today called for the banning of x…” is heard, I wince. It’s simply not what we’re there for.

Of course some dangerous things need to be banned. The trouble is, most of them already are, as are a lot of things that shouldn’t be. You’d expect to hear Lib Dems calling for the removal of bans far more often that piling on yet more restriction, but we don’t, do we? There’s such a culture of banning anything that might be dangerous or upsetting – providing it’s not embraced by a majority of people, like, say, the fumes and accidents associated with cars – that we seem fearful of standing up to it. Worse, a lot of kindly, well-meaning Lib Dems actually believe that the first response to anything a bit nasty should be to ban it, because surely no-one could really support nasty things and imposing nice things instead is really only for their own good (an approach referred to by several other splendid Lib Dem bloggers as Toynbeeism). The fact that people frequently disagree on what happens to be ‘nice’ or ‘nasty’ is usually glossed over by those who claim that they know best, when everyone’s ‘best’ is best decided by themselves.

This argument tends to boil down pretty much to the lines of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s On Liberty, that you should be able to give your informed consent to pretty much what you want, as long as you don’t directly harm other people. Obviously, the ‘harm’ argument is what Lib Dem defenders of the smoking ban have based their case on. There is a Liberal case for it, but I believe it’s a particularly flimsy one, and wrong. For a start, Mill and Taylor didn’t argue that as soon as something did any harm, it instantly had to be banned – merely that that was the only point at which ordering people about could be considered. They said that quite often prohibition would be disproportionate to the harm caused, or do additional harm in itself, and that there might often be other ways to reduce the harm done than legal sanction.

Most of the supporters of the ban – those who simply believe in ‘improving people’s lives’ by force, an arguable but plainly not a Liberal position – do it on the grounds of public health. There’s a big difference between, say, public action to improve health that private action can’t (such as, for example, building sewers), and intervening in people’s lifestyle choices when they don’t get in other people’s way, between enabling people to be healthy (thoroughly Liberal) and preventing them from being unhealthy. It’s clear that the ‘forcing people to be healthier’ approach was the main driver for the ban; just listen to all the statistics bandied around about the way rates of smoking have fallen in cities and countries where public bans have been introduced. These are the arguments of stealth prohibitionists, not people concerned with protecting non-smokers. A public smoking ban has the added advantage for Labour that it would disproportionately improve the health of people in ‘lower’ social classes; so much easier and cheaper to order people to have less fun than to do anything about those inconvenient and expensive causes of ill-health in poorer areas such as housing, pollution or income. Some have suggested that the only reason the Government was against a total ban to begin with was that, like many of their other law and order policies, they’d based their approach on Judge Dredd and wanted to introduce the Smokatorium.

The workers’ safety element was introduced quite late in the argument and seems particularly targeted at liberal-minded waverers once the ‘public health’ case had grabbed as many as it could. And, yes, it made me think more carefully too. But there are many other ways to tackle health at work, and it doesn’t explain why smoking rooms that don’t have to have workers present except for clearing up afterwards couldn’t be maintained in clubs, for example (it’s certainly unpleasant, but I’d much rather pick up fag ends than clean the loos of many of the pubs I’ve been in). It doesn’t consider the issue of workers who want to smoke at work, and I’ve worked with a lot. It doesn’t consider the possibility of higher wages (even through legislation) for those working in smoky environments, just as there are higher wages and stricter rules surrounding those working with far more hazardous materials than tobacco.

The Liberal Democrats as a party seem to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the argument that one group of workers need absolute safety (unless they work in the Palace of Westminster), whereas many other risky jobs are guarded by precaution and regulation rather than prohibition. But it’s a smokescreen for the wider issue of public health by diktat. Astoundingly, we trumpeted the fact that we were the only party to favour a complete ban even in private clubs. When the 2005 Lib Dem Manifesto was being written, I argued on the Federal Policy Committee that we should leave the ban out of it. I don’t think I was in a minority of one, but it wasn’t far off. Perhaps many are running scared of the hysterical, nonsensical socialist rants I’ve read that any Liberals who oppose the ban want to turn back the clock to the worker-slaughtering laissez-faire of the Victorian mill-owner. And some even believe in ordering people about ‘their own good’ and want to cover it up. Whatever the reason, I was impressed by those eight MPs willing to defy the party whip on this. None of the leadership contenders covered themselves in glory: Chris supports the ban; Ming argues loudly about too many Lib Dems wanting to ban things, then mumbles on this issue, backtracks and ends up voting for the ban; and Simon says the ban is wrong, but is mysteriously missing for the vote.

I find it difficult to believe that this will be the end of the argument, and I suspect the Liberal Democrats will end up unpleasantly boxed in when the next round of public health-based creeping prohibition comes in and we face either blatant illiberalism or accusations of u-turns. What about workers coming into people’s homes? Obviously they deserve the same protection as people in pubs, don’t they? So stub that fag out, or be sued by your plumber. And who deserves the greater protection – adults who can protect themselves and make their own decisions or poor, vulnerable, innocent children? Even without asking the question in the form of a push-poll, it’s a no-brainer. So how long before smoking should be banned in homes where children are present, or may be present, because after all children have no choice?

I also worry that the argument about doing harm to other people will soon be warped further out of shape by saying that, although you can do harm to yourself, if you’re manufacturing or supplying cigarettes you’re doing harm to other people and therefore those activities should be banned. This is essentially the position of those who call for cannabis to be decriminalised (or even those supporting the recent reclassification) rather than legalised, so I don’t see it as beyond the bounds of possibility. If you say an activity is not illegal, good heavens no, but you make it illegal to practise it anywhere or to supply the materials with which to practise it, claiming that you don’t support prohibition is just sophistry.

I’m sure many readers will have formed a view as they work down the page of me sitting at my PC, fag in hand, spluttering unhealthily as I type with yellow-stained fingers. Tragically for that stereotype, I’m not a smoker, just a Liberal. I do indeed cough as I type, but that’s due to asthma, which if it’s down to any airborne cause is thanks to the levels of car fumes in urban southern England. Even on the rare occasions I’ve taken cannabis my sweet tooth means I’ve much preferred hash brownies. I much prefer smoke-free bars, but even guaranteeing smoke-free spaces is not the same as banning all smoke-filled ones. People I’ve known and loved have died through smoking-related illnesses. And I strongly support discouraging smoking through, for example, the most blunt and scary health warnings, so that if people decide to smoke, it’s informed consent. But people must have the right to decide for themselves. I don’t oppose a ban through self-interest, though there may be a nagging fear that if tobacco goes it’ll be chocolate and sausages next, but after all, isn’t it a good starting point in politics to consider, ‘how would I feel if it was done to me?’

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I agree that we shouldn't have the policy. As we have the policy I can see the argument for MPs voting for it. But I don't like this ban at all.

Perhaps . for the benefit of those of us who never have or will attend a meeting of Pederal Policy committee you could explain how these things come about.
The official Lib Dem website can probably tell you the whole process in tedious detail, but here's my short form. In theory Lib Dem policy for the whole UK and usually for England is made by votes in Conference, though a lot of the smaller details are effectively decided day-by-day by what the Parliamentary spokespeople say (and policy for Scotland, Wales and the regions is something else again).

How policy gets to Conference to be voted on at the moment is through two main routes. Either a motion can be brought on a particular fairly self-contained issue (by twenty representatives to the Conference, or a local party, or organisations like LDYS, and with the Federal Conference Committee deciding which motions are selected), or a paper can be drawn up in greater depth, which is the role of the Federal Policy Committee.

What the FPC does is commission working groups, open to any party member to apply to join but usually with a couple of FPC members to make sure they don't get too far away from what the party believes, which draw up a consultation paper that anyone can give their views on. They then consider those views and expert evidence, and create a full policy paper of proposals. The FPC then decides if it's any good, and either tells the group to think again or (usually with a few changes) sends it to Conference to be voted through, amended or - exceedingly rarely - kicked out. I'd particularly recommend the paper on what the Lib Dems stand for, It's About Freedom.

At the moment there's also a process going on to look at the whole of our policy in the round, Meeting the Challenge, which has its own site (
As far as the smoking ban in particular came about, I can't remember which route it came through, the 'off the cuff' or the 'year-and-a-half of consultation', but it was debated at a Spring Conference a couple of years ago that I had to miss (or I'd have put in to speak against).

However, the point at which I did attempt to have an impact on it was for last year's Manifesto. The other main job of the FPC is to decide what goes into the Manifesto - assuming we got into government, there'd be neither time nor money to implement every single policy in five years, so the FPC does the prioritising (or, some might say, the FPC largely rubber-stamps the prioritisation and budgetary straitjacketing that's put before it while tinkering round the edges and improving the language).

Despite the fact that the huge swathes of policy were being left out because the 2005 Manifesto was the shortest for many years - I think the target was about one-third the length of the 1997 and 2001 versions, which I'd also contributed to, and it ended up a bit less than half the previous size - I was accused of wanting to get rid of the policy undemocratically because I didn't want the smoking ban in the first place. Well, plainly I disagree with it, and that's why I didn't want it to be one of our priorities. However, it'd still be policy whether in the Manifesto or not, although there have been plenty of the more centralist tendency in the party who like to argue that what isn't in the Manifesto doesn't count (which, were it true, would in effect mean the FPC could strike down any Conference decision it wanted to. Which is bollocks).

Ironically, I'd been on the receiving end of the 'if it isn't in the Manifesto it isn't policy' phenomenon several times previously, usually when spokespeople wanted to make up policy on the hoof, whatever the party had decided through its democratic processes.

The most ferocious argument I was ever involved in over whether something got into the Manifesto was in 1997, when Paddy got it into his head that 'votes at 16' would become the biggest vote-loser ever seen (no, I still don't know why). I argued the contrary case, and the first time we voted on the issue Paddy was in a minority of two. Uniquely for that Manifesto, once this policy had been voted on it turned out not to have been 'decided'. We returned to it four times, each time with the majority in favour of lowering the voting age declining as more strong-arming went on behind the scenes. The final meeting to decide the Manifesto started at 5pm and finished at 1am, with the 'votes at 16' vote taken at 00.40 after several people had left, and with Paddy winning that time by one vote (notably, the younger and more radical of the directly elected FPC members and the ex-officio senior MPs voted for it, while those in the middle still dependent on Leadership patronage voted against. Funny, that). However, I was taken aside by Paddy - who I should say I had enormous respect for, but on this issue I think just went a little bonkers - afterwards and told that, as a compromise, because the vote had been so close, he would now say if asked that it was indeed our policy, but not in the Manifesto and so not a priority. He'd previously denied that it was our policy whenever the issue came up in public.

In Paddy's absence, it went into the 2001 Manifesto without a blink and caused not the faintest ripple. On the bright side, some of the other bits I put in were attacked by the Daily Telegraph, so I didn't feel too disappointed.

Many thanks. Only fair to say that I have never been a fan of our votes at 16 policy - nor especially our "everything should be legal at 16" approach (I'm not sure if this is policy or just individual over-enthusiasm). But that is by the way.

I find that we are all over the place on bans: it does not seem that far wide of the mark to say that if somehting is currently banned we think it shouldn't and if something isn't we think it should be.

Perhaps this is because we are simply not ideological enough.
Thanks for the posting, Alex: both the article, with which I agree 100%, and the ellucidating comments!
Thanks Stephen - you'll not be surprised I heartily agreed with your post, too. It may be more news that I was originally going to headline mine with the same pun, but you beat me to it ;-)

I wonder if I'll get 2065-word attacks on my view in this comments section, like you did? Astonishingly, that's longer than any of the posts I've put on here. And I tend to go on a bit.
I don't agree with this argument that "I am a Liberal, and for that very reason I must be against banning things". Anarchists may believe in emptying the prisons, but we don't. That is because we believe in balancing freedoms. Freedom is fine for political freedoms, but addictions are a different matter. How free is a gambling addict when he can go to a casino everyday. Even if you can argue that he "chose" to be a gambling addict - a view that is contentious in itself - what about his wife and family , how much choice do they have when they are left broke as well?
"Banning things" is an option that should be used by Lib Dems if the knock on effects are a net increase in freedom for everyone.
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