by Kevin Meagher
So how will the new ban on smoking in a car while children are passengers actually work? Will traffic cameras scour the motorway lanes for the odd plume of cigarette smoke? Will there be spot checks on ashtray contents? Will under-18s be expected to give evidence against their nicotine-addicted parents? And why, if smoking in front of your children in a car is now deemed so heinous, does the ban not extend to the home?
Last night, MPs from all parties enthusiastically queued up to vote the measure through by 376 to 107, as they once did to push through legislation banning dangerous dogs and creating the Child Support Agency. That’s how received opinion works.
For Labour, support – unquestioning support – for this measure sends out the signal that big government, primary legislation and encroaching personal freedom remain, all too often, the first, second and third instincts of the party. Labour has, quite frankly – and entirely justifiably – a lousy reputation when it comes to defending personal liberty.
Left to its own devices, the last Labour government would have forced each of us to carry identity cards around to prove we are who we say we are at the whim of every enquiring public official, while allowing the authorities to lock-up someone without charge or trial for up to three months.
Worse, it shows yet again that any gesture cause or pressure group can overwhelm the party’s critical faculties (in this case, in the august shape of the Royal College of Physicians). Whatever happened to persuasion, or good old-fashioned Fabian gradualism as a means to bringing about change?
To be fair, this now seems a malady for our professional political class, with the Prime Minister joining this caravan (non-smoking, to be sure) of well-intentioned freedom-trimmers. Indeed, the switch in emphasis towards preventative healthcare in recent years has seen an increasingly bossy tone from our medical professionals. (And it is surely only a matter of time before we see healthcare rationing for those among us deemed resistant to their finger-wagging entreaties).
Heaven help us, but the Lib Dems have been the only people talking sense in opposing the smoking ban in cars. The high principle should be obvious enough to any democrat: this is an intrusive and clumsy foray into the rights of parents and families and yet another extension of the state into the affairs of private individuals. The pragmatic response is that without regular road checkpoints, replete with sniffer dogs, the measure is utterly, laughably, unenforceable. By definition, laws that cannot be reasonably implemented are bad laws.
If this exercise in legislative overkill is really all about “sending a message” that passive smoking is bad for children and should be discouraged, then fine; let’s explore what works best in getting parents to quit smoking voluntarily.
But why is nobody calling for cigarette manufacturers – the ultimate predatory capitalists – to alter the compound of cigarettes to make them less carcinogenic?
Or for advocates of nudge theory, why are we not getting car manufacturers to remove ashtrays and cigarette lighters as a way of discouraging the act?
For that matter, why are public health experts not calling for smokers to cut down if they cannot pack in, or even switch to roll-ups as a half-way measure in reducing overall quantities of smoking?
Our approach to public health messaging is too often lazy and obstinate; and explains why we fail to deliver any paradigm shift in public behaviour when it comes to excessive drinking and obesity.
But equally obstinate is the view that spending, taxing and regulating from the centre are the only way to deliver desirable outcomes. We cannot and should not seek to police every social interaction, especially when we do so wielding a big stick. This impulse to do so, especially in an age of austerity, is a habit that Labour really should learn to kick.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut