It puzzles me sometimes why there are no moves towards finding a compromise solution to the smoking problem, by allowing separate smoking rooms in pubs, or separate smoking pubs.
But I think the answer to this is that the antismokers can’t contemplate such plurality or diversity. Theirs is a one-size-fits-all mentality. In one, single, unified society everybody must abide by the same rules. And they must abide by them everywhere and all the time. There can be no exceptions. To allow any sort of diversity is to consent to society becoming fragmented and divided. And this they cannot tolerate. We must all sing from the same hymn sheet, and dance to the same tune. We are all equal, and must be treated equally, and behave equally.
And yet the very first thing that the smoking ban did – on Day One – was to divide pub-goers into insiders and outsiders. The non-smokers and antismokers sat inside, and the smokers stood outside. It’s a social division which hasn’t become blurred by time. You’re either an insider or an outsider. And if you’re an outsider who’s fed up with standing outside, you don’t go inside: you go home. And that widens the rift.
And it goes deeper than just whether you sit inside or stand outside. Because if you’re an insider you will have the approval and support of the government and the media. It will be to you that the government will look for public approval (say, for further smoking bans), and it will be people like you who will appear on TV to give their considered opinions about a variety of matters. You will be a respectable citizen. But if you’re an outsider, your opinions will be disregarded by the government, and they will not be reflected in the media. And you will be demonised and shunned. And you will feel all the more an outsider for it.
And perhaps, like me, you will get rid of your TV because you no longer want to listen to people who are not like you talking about things you don’t want to know about, and saying things you don’t agree with. And you don’t want to vote for any of them either. In fact, you wouldn’t want to know them at all.
And once society has become divided into insiders and outsiders, in the absence of remedial measures the divisions must gradually and remorselessly deepen. They must become two separate cultures. They must become as different as Catholics and Protestants. Or Jews and Gentiles. And they will have less and less to do with each other.
As a small (and almost trivial) example of this, I came across an article somewhere that Tony Blair had written about the recent riots. I was about to start reading it when I suddenly realised that I had no interest whatsoever in what this former Prime Minister thought about this (or anything else). And equally, I didn’t want to know what David Cameron, the current Prime Minister, thought about the riots either. For as far as I am concerned, Tony Blair is the Prime Minister who brought in the smoking ban as one of his last acts. And David Cameron is the Prime Minister who could have moved to relax the ban, but didn’t. And both also happen to have been (and maybe still are) smokers, which makes their behaviour all the more reprehensible. They are people who expelled me from society (i.e. outside), and I no longer care what they think about anything. David Cameron has been promoting something called the “Big Society” in recent months, about which I know nothing except that I’m not a member of it – because you’re not a member of something you have to stand outside. Neither of these people gives a damn about smokers like me. And I don’t give a damn about them.
And what this points towards is an even deeper growing division which extends into the wider debate within the culture about riots and everything else. There is, quite simply, ceasing to be any shared, common culture. I don’t share anything with Blair or Cameron. There’s an ‘official’ insider culture that dominates both government and the media, and which talks only to itself, and ignores any dissenting opinion (whether it be about smoking, or global warming, or the EU, or riots, or anything else), and they’re members of it. And there’s an ‘unofficial’ outsider culture, of people who are ignored or excluded, and I’m a member of that.
Not only is society divided at its foundations, with the antismokers sitting inside the pubs and the smokers standing outside, but this division extends hairline cracks through the entire fabric of society, including government and media and the whole public debate about everything.
And paradoxically, this divided society has been the consequence of trying to create a single, one-size-fits-all, level-playing-field society.
I think that when cracks open up in society, they should be regarded with same kind of alarm as when cracks open up in ships. For the two are strongly analogous. The ship may float quite well in harbour, but when it’s caught in a storm and it’s subjected to extreme stresses, those cracks are likely to open even wider, and do so catastrophically. So also with society.
It’s one reason why I think that, sooner or later, there will come to be calls for the divisions in society to be healed, and for smokers to be treated fairly, and pubs allowed to open smoking rooms. It won’t be called for because anyone will think that smoking isn’t a bad thing. It’ll be called for because the widening social divisions that have been consequent upon the ban will have at last been recognised by a few percipient observers.
But, at the same time, there is reason to suppose that such urgent calls will be ignored. And this will be precisely because the government and the media only consider insider views and opinions, and resolutely ignore and disregard all outsider opinions. And because of this, they will continue to think that the smoking ban is a great success, and everybody loves it, particularly those many smokers who enjoy standing outside in the wind and rain.
It’s a bit like Libya under Gaddafi. If you were a Gaddafi loyalist and insider, you got preferential treatment, and in turn you told the dictator that everybody loved him, including his enemies. In fact, particularly his enemies. And Gaddafi believed this, because nobody was telling him any different, because nobody was permitted to tell him any different. And so the divisions in Libyan society were never addressed, and insiders and outsiders became ever more divided and opposed. The Gaddafi government insiders just talked to themselves, in their own self-congratulatory dialogue, while the outsiders fumed outside.
And nothing ever stays the same. When cracks open up in society, or in the hull of a ship, or in anything else, they only ever get wider. They don’t ever spontaneously close together and reseal. And so the very real divisions that are opened up in a society by smoking bans are not going to heal themselves. They’re only going to widen.
And so this is what will happen. But don’t expect any of our current crop of politicians to see it happening any more than Colonel Gaddafi could see it happening.