The media and the blogs have been full of Gordon Brown’s latest gaffe, privately calling a Labour voter a ‘bigot’ minutes after publicly telling her how pleased he was to meet her. Pundits have been out in force to assess whether it will do significant damage.
I hope it does. It’s an episode which highlights the two-faced nature of modern politics: politicians will say one thing in public, and something completely different in private. What is presented to the voting public is a sham and a mask. It’s up to the public to try to guess what lies behind the mask.
And it also highlights Labour’s attitude to its own voters, which is one of complete contempt. A Labour voter had asked about East European immigrants, and for this she was dismissed as a ‘bigot’. Yet as I see it, it is this Labour government which is a government of bigots.
So I hope it damages Labour. I hope that it will prove to be an ’emblematic moment’, as one BBC reporter suggested it might be. But most politicians who commented upon the episode were much more forgiving. Probably because they also were as equally two-faced as Gordon Brown, and as equally bigoted.
But the episode also demonstrates the shallow nature of the entire campaign. Nothing of substance is being discussed. Not the public debt. Not the EU. Not the collapsing grand narrative of global warming. Nor, of course, the smoking ban. A politician has simply been found out for saying one thing in public, and another in private. Is that news?
Nick Clegg’s response to it all, questioned by Eddie Mair on Radio 4’s PM, was more or less to say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I”. That may have been because the very first question that Eddie Mair asked him was whether he believed in God. He didn’t. But it was a question for which he clearly didn’t have a prepared answer, and was slightly on the back foot for the rest of the interview. Indeed many of the subsequent questions were also ones which he didn’t have a ready answer for. For example, was there anything he wasn’t very good at? Lots of things, he replied. And, had he considered that he might become Prime Minister next week? No, he hadn’t.
I discovered today that Nick Clegg had only been an MP since 2005. Perhaps this explains his charm to many voters. He has perhaps not yet learned to become a standard, two-faced, bigoted politician. He remains engaging and approachable. He seems to be trying to answer questions, even if they are sometimes very strange questions.
Not that I’m in the least bit charmed. There’s only one issue for me at this election, and that is the smoking ban. It’s a piece of legislation which has exiled me from society. And, as an outcast and exile, all other questions are necessarily secondary. The national debt. The EU. Global warming. Immigration. All of them. I can only see them through the prism of the smoking ban. Such matters only have meaning for people who are, or who regard themselves as being, full British citizens, and who therefore have a stake in this country’s future development. On 1 July 2007, I ceased to have such a stake.
I’m not charmed by Clegg because, according to the Public Whip’s handy all-in-one display of MPs’ votes on the smoking ban, Clegg voted for the total ban. As such, he joins Gordon Brown and Tony Blair and Vince Cable and all the rest of the MPs who decided that day to expel Britain’s 15 million smokers from their pubs. He is, as far as I am concerned, one of the damned. For the vote he cast that day has determined entirely what I will think of him hereafter. Nothing else matters.
I realise that there are a great many smokers who don’t share my attitude. Many of them still regard themselves as British citizens, and full members of society. They probably never went to pubs very much, so the smoking ban didn’t have much impact on their lives. Or else they belonged to communities which didn’t entirely rely on pubs and clubs for their meeting places. I have not been one of those fortunate people. I relied almost entirely upon pubs as meeting places. Once they were turned into so many dentists’ waiting rooms, my community of friends began to disintegrate. Over the past three years, I’ve become more and more isolated. And it’s an isolation which is only set to deepen.
More or less whatever happens, the ill effects of it fall more on some people than on others. One might think of a people as being an army that goes off to war in Flanders fields. Some of them return covered in glory. Some of them return injured. Some of them return entirely unharmed. And some of them are killed, and never return at all. I belong in the final category, even if I am still struggling to disinter myself from the mud that covers me.
I’m sure that I’m not alone. There are plenty of other dead out there. Some of the smokers I know have recounted similar stories of deepening isolation. It’s barely surprising, given the inexorable logic of the situation. If you destroy a social institution, you also destroy the network of relationships that have been built up in that institution. So it’s not just my community of friends that has been destroyed, but millions upon millions of friendships across the entire land.
For some people, like Lawrence Walker, it was too much. He took his own life about 6 months after the ban came into force. He had become, in that time, a complete exile. He had lost all connection with everything and everyone. He probably didn’t have an internet connection, deep in the Cornish countryside. I at least have that, and so belong to the strange virtual communities which flourish within it. Such communities are – like e-cigarettes – better than nothing. But they don’t compare to the real thing, the actual experience of meeting people and talking to them.
It’s one reason why I am optimistic that the smoking ban will be amended or repealed one day. I simply don’t believe that such an utterly vile and vindictive and monstrously destructive piece of legislation can survive very long. I can no more imagine it being possible than I can believe that a country can be ruled by villains and thieves and murderers for very long either.
It’s not just all the pubs that have been closing, largely as a consequence of the ban. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The real damage is the social damage, the millions of broken friendships, crushed out by an imposed isolation. The pub closures at least get reported in a few newspapers. The underlying fractured society is never reported at all. The individual hairline fissures are almost too tiny to notice. But I think that they are all that really matters. Any society is, in some sense, simply the sum of all the connections between everyone in it. Remove those connections, and the pubs will remain standing, and the trains will still run, but there will be no society at all.
This is why the smoking ban will be amended or – better still – entirely repealed. The enormous and progressive social damage will become increasingly apparent, even to those who are not smokers, and whose lives were entirely unaffected (and maybe even temporarily improved) by the smoking ban.
And it’s also why all antismoking organisations must be destroyed. Every single last fucking one of them. They must become proscribed organisations like Al Qaeda or the IRA. And it’s why the World Health Organisation and the medical establishment must be reformed root and branch, and large numbers of their senior members struck off or fired or otherwise removed from their posts. What else is to be done with people who inflict such enormous damage on society? These people pose as the earnest friends of humanity, anxious for their health. But they are in fact the bitterest enemies of civil society and community and friendship and conviviality. And all they ever tell are lies.
It’ll make no difference who gets elected next week, because none of the political parties (apart from UKIP and the BNP) are proposing to do anything at all about the smoking ban. So it looks like it will be another few years before the voices of the drowned smokers will be heard. The enormous social damage will go on being done. But their voices will eventually be heard. One or two far-sighted politicians, and maybe a bishop here and there, or some social psychologist, will draw attention to them. Who knows how it will happen. But happen it will.