Obsessives and Cranks

I’d like to return to Tom Harris’ Land of Angry post from last week, which ended up with 96 comments, 3 of them mine – including a post on my own blog. In his post he’d been asking where all the angry single-issue commenters on his blog were coming from. He wrote:

…despite media mythology, MPs are generally in touch with what their constituents think. It’s in our interests to listen to the people whose support we’ll be asking for in a few short weeks. And in all the doorsteps I’ve been on in 2009, not a single voter has mentioned either the Lisbon Treaty or the smoking ban.

The implication was clear. The single-issue commenters, ranting on about the EU, or the smoking ban, were "obsessives and cranks".

Is Tom right? Well, in some ways, yes he is right. In my own estimation, 70% of people – the non-smokers – are entirely indifferent to the smoking ban. Of the 30% or so of people who are smokers or occasional smokers, probably barely 10% of those are deeply angry at the ban. A great many smokers who never went to pubs much anyway were probably not much bothered by the ban. Of the rest of them, the smoking ban was another inconvenience to be endured along with all the other inconveniences of life. It was only for a small minority of smokers that the smoking ban brought the end of a way of life, and a profound sense of social exclusion.

My estimates are simply based on my own experience. For non-smokers, the smoking ban is not a subject of any interest. It’s actually very difficult to talk to them about it, because they’re just not interested. For smokers, the smoking ban is a subject of interest, but they usually don’t talk about it. And when they do, they come up with a surprising diversity of opinions. Some of them approve of the ban, on the grounds that it has helped them cut down or entirely give up smoking. Others don’t like it much, but can live with popping outside for a smoke now and then. Others, like me, absolutely hate the ban.

So, since by my estimate, 70% of people don’t care about the ban, and only 10% of the remaining 30% of smokers actively hate the ban, that means that only 3 people in 100 are going to be seriously angry about it.

Is it very surprising then, that Tom Harris never encounters anyone who complains about the smoking ban? Of every 100 doors he knocks on, he’s only likely to find 3 people mentioning it.

And furthermore, since pub-goers are almost by definition people who spend long periods of time in pubs rather than at home, is it very likely that Tom Harris would find them at home anyway?

And even if he did find them at home, is it very likely that the smoking ban would be uppermost on their mind when it came to airing their concerns. Smokers don’t just smoke cigarettes all the time: they very often have lots of other concerns. They have jobs and marriages and children just like most other people. They have plenty of other things on their minds than the smoking ban. And, prompted by Tom Harris on their doorstep, it’s just as likely to be one of these other concerns, or something they’ve just seen on the news, which is likely to spring to mind.

And then, add to that the fact that it’s not regarded as quite ‘proper’ to complain too much about anything. When people are ill, they don’t usually talk about their illness all the time, even if it’s the only thing that’s on their mind. And they don’t talk about it because they know it’s not interesting to other people, and that they can become bores if they go on about it too much. So they button their lips and don’t mention it, even if they’re in agony. Are they likely to say any more to their local MP when he comes knocking at their door than they will say to their friends or family?

Pub-going smokers might be compared to theatre-goers. They are people who enjoy a particular sort of experience – the peculiar magic of theatre. And they belong to a minority. In a city like Bristol, there are perhaps a half dozen theatres, and only a few hundred regular theatre-goers. If all the theatres in Bristol were closed overnight, it would only be a few hundred people who deeply felt the loss. And given a population of Bristol of 500,000, that would mean that a Bristol MP, knocking on doorsteps, would find that not one in a thousand of his constituents cared two hoots about the closure of Bristol’s theatres. Would he be justified in dismissing the few letters of complaint he received about theatre closures as the work of a few unrepresentative cranks, because he never encountered any on any Bristol doorsteps? 

What doorstepping is likely to discover is not minority concerns, like in pubs or theatres, but majority concerns – things that affect most people. And that’s going to be jobs, and housing, and education, and healthcare and so on. And in some little town that’s been flooded by an overflowing river, it’s going to be floods that bother most people. All the other little single issues that bother people are mostly not going to get noticed.

But even if they’re minority issues, they’re still issues that affect people just as much as the main bread-and-butter political issues. In the case of angry smokers, 3% of the voting population is steamed up about the smoking ban. But these angry people are dispersed evenly across the entire land. If they all lived in the same parliamentary constituencies,  and had all been flooded by the same river, they would have a representation of 20 MPs – a number sufficient to extract promises from government in return for their votes on other matters. But because they are dispersed everywhere, they have no votes at all, and no representation at all. And because they have no voice, they get angrier and angrier, and shout louder and louder, and they become the ‘obsessives and cranks’ that Tom Harris despairs of.

But it’s deeper than this. The smoking ban isn’t the only deeply divisive minority issue. There are lots of them. The EU is another one with the same character. Most people don’t give any more or a damn about the EU than they do about the smoking ban. It’s a small minority of people, dispersed evenly over the land, who care about Britain and British sovereignty and British (or English) traditions and customs. And they have no representation either. And so they also become ‘cranks and obsessives’. And then global warming sceptics maybe form another minority of people dispersed evenly across the land. And fox hunters. And Catholics. And theatre-goers. And so on and on and on. And so you end up with an entire country in which more or less everybody is a member of some minority whose concerns are being ignored. Everybody is angry about something. Or, if they’re not angry yet, they soon will be.

When it rains heavily in one localised area of Britain, like North Yorkshire, and hundreds of homes in one town are flooded, it’s national news and the Prime Minister and Prince Charles visit and promise prompt action. But if the same amount of rain falls evenly over the whole of Britain, and just as many houses in total are flooded, there is no response at all, even if the net suffering is just as great or even greater. We have a political physiology which is able to respond to localised problems, like a brick dropped on a foot, but not to systemic problems, like sunburn that slightly roasts wide expanses of skin. Yet they are equally dangerous to the wellbeing of the body politic.

Tom Harris’ doorstepping technique is one which will discover most of the political concerns of most people. It will provide a hazy, fuzzy overview. What it won’t discover is any of the burning single issues that affect small minorities of people dispersed evenly across the land. Issues like the EU, and the smoking ban, and dozens and dozens of similar issues which simply don’t get caught in the wide mesh of Tom Harris’ doorstep sieve.

What’s amazing is that he has noticed them at all. Because most MPs don’t even seem to be aware they even exist. If all the MPs in Westminster were as aware as he was of these depths of discontent, why, who knows, they might even debate the matter.

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15 Responses to Obsessives and Cranks

  1. Anonymous says:

    …and those of us who hate the smoking ban AND the EU issue AND abuse of State power are not just angry but absolutely seething with rage!

  2. Frank Davis says:

    Ah yes. Abuse of state power in Labour’s fascist state.
    I knew I’d forgotten something.

  3. Anonymous says:

    From Junican (given up with LiveJournal).
    There are still comments on Tom Hariss’s site about ‘inappropriate posts’ – although the comments seem to have become centred around the smoking ban. A poster named ‘Qidzeapple’ (or something like that) has been defending the ban – you have probably seen it.
    Anyway, I have just posted there in response to QZ.
    Many posters who are in favour of the ban are still going on about ‘the harm that smoking does’ (including QZ), and by implication the harm that passive smoking does.
    I think that we have gone beyond that. I think that we are now in the realms of FREEDOM.
    I know that ‘Freedom to Choose’ has been banging on about pub closures and freedom to choose in general for some time, but I am not sure how solidly the LOGICAL case for freedom has been made – but I may be wrong.
    My case is that, as free individuals, we can decide to participate in some risky activity if we wish – like playing the game of rugby. Rugby is dangerous because, occasionally, someone breaks his neck. We have the freedom to decide whether or not we engage in this risky activity.
    BY LOGICAL EXTENSION, we have the freedom to invite other people to join us in engaging in the risky activity. If that were not true, then no one would be able to organise a rugby match.
    Thus, a publican ought to be able to invite adult persons to join him in engaging in the possibly risky activity of drinking and smoking. Persons who do not wish to engage, can refuse.
    Is this not the crux of the matter? The smoking ban is denying us our freedom of assembly.
    It is my opinion that, eventually, it will be on these grounds that the smoking ban will be overturned. If likeminded people are not allowed to assemble indoors for some trumped up health reason, then there is something wrong with our constitution. Isn’t that what eventually overturned ‘prohibition’ in the USA?
    It may take some time, but the process could be accelerated if a group of smokers were to invade some hospital grounds somewhere where smoking in the fresh air is prohibited, complete with cameras and sound recording equipment, and insist on their right to smoke in the fresh air. I would be prepared to partake in such a process. But, as you say, we are spread out all over the country and such a protest would be hard to organise. Nevertheless, something of that nature is required – in the same way that prohibition in the USA was contested.

  4. tayles_100 says:

    I think you’re right. The government introduces some new policy, backed by evidence that sounds convincing but needn’t be accurate, and justifies it on the basis that it is the fair, proper and progressive course of action. Anyone who objects then sounds like a selfish crank who is holding back progress.
    One of the triumphs of New Labour has been to establish itself as the moral conscience of the nation. The old system of stigmas and social sanctions that once governed our behaviour resided in our traditions, institutions and shared moral codes. New Labour rapidly set about dismantling this system, undermining all the layers of authority that lay between itself and the people. Our freedom to express individual judgment was portrayed as a mandate for bigotry and oppression.
    The civil service, which has always been a neutral entity charged with carrying out the orders of the incumbent government, was transformed into an arm of the Labour Party. The moral codes which allowed us to differentiate right from wrong were replaced by the statute book. Henceforth, the government would be the sole moral arbiter in society. No one would be permitted to deviate from the party line. If it was illegal, it was wrong. If it was legal then it was good.
    This is the way that insecure control-freaks express themselves. They fear the judgment of others, so they erode our ability to express it. Every weed of dissent must be isolated and eliminated. This is why our pubs – those little bastions of self-management and self-expression – were targeted. The idea that there was anywhere in the nation where people were continuing the old prejudices was intolerable. I think that hatred of smoking among politicians has always been less about health than it was about smashing a symbol of a world in which our polticial elite do not control every aspect of our lives.

  5. Frank Davis says:

    Quietzapple is an ex-smoker, and quite probably a doctor as well (he/she wrote that he’d worked on a hospital cancer ward – all cancer being caused by smoking natch). So nothing new there.
    I am not sure how solidly the LOGICAL case for freedom has been made – but I may be wrong.
    I’ve not seen anyone do that. That gets into philosophy. What’s clear is that the antis hate freedom. It’s threatening and dangerous. If people can do what they like, then anything at all might happen, and that’s a terrifying prospect. So they want to take freedom away, and create a world that is predictable and orderly, containing no nasty surprises. And logically, once they’ve started down that path, they must take away all freedoms.
    Anyway, I agree it’s about freedom. And the smoking ban is an enormous restriction of freedom, using the pretext of ‘health’ – and more or less anything can be construed to be a ‘health threat’.
    I’d like to think that the ban will be revoked on the grounds that it is a restriction of freedom. But I see no signs of it happening. Freedom ought to be what the Liberals and Conservatives are about. But the word seems to have vanished from their lexicon. They all talk another language. And one which means absolutely nothing to me.
    Perhaps I should look at freedom more closely. When I’m not angry about the smoking ban, I’m quite often tinkering with my Idle Theory, in which idle time is free time, time in which people can do what they like. There’s an idea of freedom in there, which I’ve not really explored very much. Perhaps I should. It’s the only philosophy I’ve got.

  6. Frank Davis says:

    One of the triumphs of New Labour has been to establish itself as the moral conscience of the nation.
    Well, they’ve certainly been trying to, but I don’t think they’ve succeeded. Not on the streets, leastways. I don’t think people are much different now than they were 5 years ago. And in my own case, my moral conscience is in no way whatsoever being determined by New Labour. And I don’t know anybody whose is. Anybody!
    I don’t think that the moral conscience of a nation can be shaped by any government. It’s shaped by parents, friends, teachers, vicars, role models, fables, legends, poems, memories, dreams, reasonings. It’s shaped by everything. Governments are just one small input into it all. A tiny, tiny part.
    The government may dominate the legislature, the political debate, and the media, and the talk shows and so on. But that’s still just froth on the top. It provides the appearance of control, not the reality.
    Nor is it even that there is any moral coherence to New Labour. If anything, their morality is simply their particular bigotry and prejudice, stuck up on a pedestal. Tony Blair said that invading Iraq was ‘the right thing to do’. Why? Why was it ‘right’? What moral code underpins that assertion. None! None at all! There’s a complete moral vacuum there. It’s all just empty and hollow slogans. And a vastly inflated sense of self-importance.
    They are control freaks, of course. But they are also simpletons. They are trying to control something that can’t be controlled. Their dreams are the dreams of dictators and tyrants everywhere: complete subservience. And it’ll never happen. In the end, the sheer futility of it will become apparent.
    The mad enterprise is reflected in their supposition that they can even control the climate of the planet, as if it could be regulated by adding and subtracting CO2. What hubris. What vanity. What vast conceit.
    It is regular delusion of the political classes that they are like captains of some ship, and can turn the rudder this way and that, speed up or slow down the engines, and go wherever they steer. It’s a conviction which regularly overtakes them with all the force of certainty, like some new revelation. In reality, they are more like leaves floating on a stream, pulled this way and that by every current or breath of wind.

  7. Anonymous says:

    It may be some consolation that, at this time of year at least, the ban is being widely flouted.
    We don’t go out at all anymore, but our kids all do and we get frequent debriefings. In some pubs, the ashtrays come out every night although, usually, not until midnight; with some it’s a regular, weekly occurence while, in others, it’s a spontaneous, one-off decision by the landlord.
    ASH et al have got this far by relentless propaganda and astro-turfing. Given the chance, most people will gleefully light up in a pub.
    Only slightly off-topic, but Mandleson’s statement re. the devastation of pubs should beer-gardens be legislated into smokefreeness comes pretty close to admitting the ban’s role in pub closures. Can you be inspired to analyse this interesting development in one of your blogs, Frank?
    Whether or not, I hope you and all commenters on your blog have as happy a New Year as the current situation allows.

  8. Frank Davis says:

    In some pubs, the ashtrays come out every night
    I’m sure it happens, but I’ve never seen it. I think I’d find it very cheering if I did. The problem may be that I don’t go to pubs that much these days, and never late at night.
    Mandleson’s statement re. the devastation of pubs should beer-gardens be legislated into smokefreeness comes pretty close to admitting the ban’s role in pub closures.
    I’ve not heard what he said. And haven’t found anything by googling. Is he recommending that beer-gardens be made ‘smokefree’ as well? That would indeed greatly increase the devastation of pubs.
    I’m sort of supposing these days that we’re in the last months of the New Labour administration, and am hoping that they will all go away soon, never to return, Mandelson included.

  9. tayles_100 says:

    But I think their constant bombardment of propaganda and state-sanctioned views has had an effect – if not in people’s heads then certainly in their publicly voiced opinions.
    Take racism, for instance. New Labour’s anti-racist witch-hunt has probably done nothing to reduce the amount of racism in society but it has made people think twice about voicing sentiments that could be construed as racist. Indeed, the law now defines racism as something that can be construed by a third party as having racist intent. A crime that is seen as being motivated by racism is considered more serious than one with no such motivation, meaning that the thoughts going through a criminal’s mind at the time of committing an offence can be a crime in itself: the Orwellian idea of Thought Crime made real.
    And what about equality? It is now widely accepted that greater equality among people – equality of outcome, that is – is a just and desirable state of affairs. When I was growing up, I was led to believe that having the freedom to fulfil our own potential was the most beneficial way of creating a happier, more prosperous society. Adam Smith’s invisible hand was a more just and noble ideal than Karl Marx’s iron fist. Now, anyone who speaks out against equality is seen as an elitist who wishes to beat the poor, subjugate minorities and put women back in the kitchen.
    Underlying so many modern beliefs is a sense that people would give up any chance of happiness for themselves so long as those they envy are denied it also. It is a sentiment that the government positively encourages, and is typified by its environmental policies, which promise to impoverish us in exchange for a guarantee that no one else will be permitted to get too rich or happy.
    People aren’t stupid. When a bunch of trustifarians in army surplus gear march in London against power stations and cheap flights, and politicians discuss higher taxes and fewer liberties, no one honestly believes that the net result will be a wealthier, happier, more dynamic society. They know perfectly well it will lower people’s horizons and make it harder for them to fulfil their potential. And that is precisely why the people who support these measure do so.
    This is the mentality of the envious and the inadequate. It is a psychology that appeals to the worst aspects of our character: a resentment of those more content than ourselves. It is a strong and attractive emotion, and those who use it as a clarion call will always find volunteers for their cause. It requires no effort, skill or imagination on our part; only a determination to drag down those who inflame our envy. And how satisfying is that prospect for the malcontents amongst us?
    We end up with the situation we have today: the resentful, who want to subject everyone to state control so as to stifle their potential, and the objects of their resentment, who end up disavowing their wealth, talent and aspirations for fear of attracting the envious attention of others. Hardly a recipe for a happy, liberal society, is it?

  10. Frank Davis says:

    But I think their constant bombardment of propaganda and state-sanctioned views has had an effect – if not in people’s heads then certainly in their publicly voiced opinions.
    If one is to return to the matter of smoking, there has been a steadily growing bombardment of antismoking propaganda for 60 years (and perhaps even longer), throughout a variety of Labour and Conservative administrations. While I agree that New Labour has taken it much further than any of its predecessors, it’s not something wholly new. This is one reason why I’m disinclined to lay the entire blame for everything at the the feet of New Labour, as if it was all sweetness and light before them. It wasn’t. It was, you may recall, Margaret Thatcher who helped get the global warming scare rolling in the 1980s.
    The same applies to antiracism and egalitarianism and environmentalism. They’re not New Labour inventions. They were all around 50 years and more ago. Back then, however, they were on the fringes of mainstream culture. Now, they’re mainstream cultural values, perhaps simply because the people who absorbed those values are now the people who are MPs and ministers and bureaucrats. And perhaps that’s why the volume has doubled and trebled and quadrupled over the past 10 years or so.
    I am myself one of those people. I was in my teens in the 1960s and absorbed everything, simply by breathing the air. It was only as I grew older that I came to question ideas which seemed to be more based upon mysticism than anything. Over the years I’ve gradually changed my mind about first one thing and then another. And in this I’m perhaps unusual. Some people seem to have not changed at all, or to have become even more inclined to mysticism and irrationalism and cultism than before.
    Take, for example, equality. I am, as I’ve said to you before, something of an egalitarian. I’d prefer to live in a society in which everyone was approximately equally wealthy, rather than some being very rich and some being very poor. And so I perfectly understand what Gordon Brown is on about when he talks about a more equal society. But I’ve gradually come to believe that equality is an unattainable ideal, and that the pursuit of equality can only be successful by a levelling down process. It’s much easier to achieve equality by making everyone poor than it is by making everyone rich. And so the process of equalisation is almost certainly going to be a process of impoverishment. And this is the point where I started to say that the pursuit of equality wasn’t worth the candle. Strict egalitarians would, however, carry on regardless, because in their view equality is the only thing that matters.
    That is an example of how my thinking has changed over time. But it’s not been in response to any public debate. Because there isn’t any public debate. All we have these days are attempts to shout down the opposition, and prevent them from speaking, while declaring that ‘the debate is over’. And that’s the thing that I find most disturbing these days: there is no debate. There is simply the chanting of mantras and slogans.

  11. tayles_100 says:

    Like you say, equality can only be achieved by levelling down. If someone is more consumed with hatred for the rich than compassion for the poor, then this is all very well. It’s a contemptable position, but it is least achievable and consistent.
    But if your beef with inequality is that so many people are poor, then you should be more interested in giving the disadvantaged an opportunity to improve their condition, rather than constantly comparing their welfare with that of the rich.
    It so happens that the best way of improving living standards is one that allows vast disparities of wealth. The system that enables someone to get a job and buy their own council house is the same one that allows someone else to get stinking rich. The important point is that the person who gets rich hasn’t done so at the expense of anyone else. People can follow their own lives in their own way, in an entire voluntary and spontaneous manner, without treading on anyone else’s toes.
    The only person who could be incensed by this is someone who is constantly comparing themselves to others; who is eternally concerned that someone has something that they don’t; who measures their happiness not on its own merit but in comparison to others. This is the thinking of the chippy, the insecure and the discontented. These are the control freaks who would like to see every aspect of human existence submitted to government control. It is precisely the philosophy that has guided this wretched government of ours for the past twelve years.

  12. Frank Davis says:

    I think that one of the reasons why people may get angry about inequalities is because they see the current state of affairs as fixed and final, rather than part of a process of change.
    I may have told this story before, but I lived for a while as a boy in Rio de Janeiro, in which there was an extreme inequality between the luxury skyscrapers on Copacabana beach and the favela shanty towns on the hills around the city. I used to find it shocking. I’d never seen anything like it in Britain. In retrospect, however, I was looking upon Rio as some sort of timeless place (which it was for me, given my brief snapshot of it) that would always be like that, or had evolved into that. If I’d seen the city as a process, in which conditions were improving, albeit in an unequal way, I’d perhaps have been less distressed by what I saw.
    On another point, I think that it’s not always about envy of the rich by the poor, but increasingly a rejection of wealth per se. Underlying a lot of environmentalism there’s the assertion that ‘we’re consuming too much’, ‘we’re too greedy’, and regarding almost all economic progress and increased prosperity as being the wrong path, and humans should have been content with their pre-industrial lot, if not their re-stone age lot. This is new.

  13. tayles_100 says:

    In the early 1990s, I worked in Cairo and I too saw terrible poverty, so I understand the instinct to make things right by simply taking money away from the rich and give it to the poor. It takes a certain detachment and sang froid to accept that there is a difference between lifting people out of poverty and simply alleviating their suffering on a short-term basis. The latter can be achieved with welfare or charity payments; the former is only possible if people are able to improve their own lot in a meaningful, long-term way.
    If anything, my time in Egypt hardened my conviction that people should be as free as possible to fulfil their own potential. I realised it is not the absence of government assistance that holds people back; it is their own inclination to blame others for their dissatisfactions – a mindset that too much government has a tendency to encourage,
    My other great example has been my own family. My grandfather escaped the poverty of South East London to start a new life in the suburbs. My father went from office junior to managing director. My entire upringing has been founded on the principles of hard work, ambition and determination. If you don’t get what you want in life, it is not down to the machinations of others, it is simply due a lack of effort, talent or luck.
    What enrages me most of all is that so many middle-class types see fit to attack wealth and progress. These idiots either feel guilty for their upbringings or have an inflated sense of entitlement that society has failed to endorse. Their opinions have nothing to do with improving other people’s lives. They are entirely self-seving.

  14. Frank Davis says:

    What enrages me most of all is that so many middle-class types see fit to attack wealth and progress.
    I’m getting pretty thoroughly sick of it too. For the most part it’s a disenchantment with consumerism, and to some extent I share that disenchantment. But if people really want to buy all these things, who am I to tell them they shouldn’t? If that’s what they want, then that’s what they want. If people don’t like consumerism, then they should themselves stop being consumers, not start telling other people to stop being consumers, and, worse, actively restricting their ability to consume.
    If you don’t get what you want in life, it is not down to the machinations of others, it is simply due a lack of effort, talent or luck.
    Not entirely. The smoking ban is entirely due to the machinations of others. Notably antismoking campaigners, senior doctors, the WHO, pharma companies, politicians, etc, etc. It’s going to require effort, talent, and luck to recover that lost fredom.
    In some ways, smoking is perhaps the ultimate consumerist activity. Followed closely by drinking. It’s pure consumption for consumption’s sake. It’s also conspicuous consumption. A cigarette in someone’s mouth sends a lot of messages. That the smoker has the leisure time to smoke cigarettes, and the money to buy them, and sufficient indifference to not care what anyone else might think of them. All of these attributes are intolerable to the righteous.
    The righteous are always selective in their righteousness. Their own consumption habits seldom attract their censure. It’s always what other people do that starts them tutting. There is no shower in my house, and therefore I regard showers as frivolities. There is no microwave oven either, and so I regard those as unnecessary luxuries (although when I did have one, it was oddly useful). I have a small car, and so I see large cars as mere status symbols. I no longer have a television, and so I can sniff at all the telly addicts watching Celebrity Come Dancing. But my tobacco and my bottle of Glenlivet are well-nigh necessities. As is my computer, of course.

  15. Anonymous says:

    The Mandleson info falls into the catagory ‘a bloke I know told me…..’ (the bloke in question being my husband) and neither of us can trace it, either.
    I think he may be muddling it with Mandleson’s statement on the tobacco display ban, (M is against it), but the husband, who’s generally reliable, insists otherwise.
    My apologies for sending you on a fruitless google search.

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