On 1 July 2007, the day the UK smoking ban came into force, when I was standing in the car park outside the River holding a beer, somebody – I don’t know who – came up to me and said:
“It’s not a free country any more.”
And I thought he was right. And I think he’s still right today, over 5 years later. Britain is no longer a free country. On 1 July 2007, I started feeling that I was living in a prison.
But what did he mean by a “free country”? Well, a country where people could, by and large, do whatever they wanted. Like sit in a pub, and drink a beer, and smoke a cigarette. That’s the very least of freedoms. And when the least of freedoms has gone, the greatest of freedoms have probably gone too. Free people are people who decide for themselves what they’ll do. Unfree people are people who can’t do that. And slaves are people who only ever do what other people want them to do.
But the strange thing about the loss of freedom that arrived with the smoking ban was that it was all justified as a completely new sort of freedom: the pubs and restaurants had gone ‘smoke-free’. The smoking ban was actually a liberation. And Britain was now ‘smoke-free’, yay!
But this new freedom didn’t actually liberate anyone to do what they wanted. It wasn’t a positive freedom. It was a negative freedom. It was an anti-freedom or -freedom. It subtracted something. A smoke-free environment is an environment minus smoke. An alcohol-free beer is a beer minus alcohol. And negative freedom negates positive freedom. The negative freedom of new pubs negated my positive freedom to sit in a pub and drink a beer and smoke a cigarette.
Language like ‘smoke-free’ negates or inverts the meaning of freedom. But it came along with another accompanying inversion of the meaning of freedom. Because the smoker who had been sitting in his pub with his pint of beer was at the same time told that he wasn’t really a free man doing what he wanted to do, but was actually an ‘addict’ and a ‘slave’. He was addicted to tobacco, a slave to the cigarette. And the smoking ban was going to help to liberate him from his slavery. It was a new emancipation.
It doesn’t stop there. The people who are emancipating the slaves with their smoke-free laws like to call themselves ‘liberals’. A liberal used to be someone who wanted people to be able to make their own choices. But it doesn’t mean that any more. It now means the opposite, more or less. It means someone who wants the new negative freedom. And since this new negative ‘freedom’ actually amounts to ‘constraint’, the new ‘liberals’ actually want to restrict and constrain people – while calling this constraint ‘freedom’, of course.
And that’s why the new ‘smoke-free’ negative ‘freedom’ doesn’t seem like freedom at all. It’s constraint. It really is like being put in prison.
The ideal world of the antismokers and the healthists – their “free world” – is actually what most people would regard as a prison. These people don’t want real freedom – positive freedom – at all. They want to be constrained. And they also want to be told what to do by authorities and experts. They don’t want to make their own choices.
So I’ve been thinking today that, in order to give these people their kind of freedom, they really all need to be rounded up and put on a sort of Alcatraz island, where they’d be well-housed and well-fed and they’d have TVs and cars and dishwashers. They could even smoke and drink and eat burgers if they wanted to. Of course they wouldn’t want any of those things. After all, they want to be somewhere that’s smoke-free and alcohol-free and fat-free and sugar-free and salt-free and meat-free. And probably carbon-free and car-free.
No need for a trial or anything. These people would just love prison life. They’d love a place where the only food was porridge.
And they’d also like a place where they got plenty of exercise. What better exercise is there than breaking rocks? It would be a really healthy existence, getting up in the morning to eat your bowl of porridge, and then heading out to break rocks all day, before coming back and eating another bowl of scrumptious porridge. There’d be no obesity. And they’d be supplying the world with valuable gravel, and thus doing something useful for once. They’d probably march out in the morning singing, and come back singing in the evening. That is, they would if it wasn’t a music-free environment. Which of course it would be, because ‘Your right to play music stops at my ears’.
And I thought that they’d also like plenty of fresh air, not just while they were out breaking rocks, but when they got back. So I thought you’d have to take all the glass out of the windows, and replace them with simple iron bars.
And they’d probably like fresh water too, so I thought that punching a few holes in the roof would supply them with all the fresh water they’d ever want.
And since a lot of them are Greens, I wondered how to make their environment nice and green, until I realised that with water trickling down all the walls there’d be moss and green slime growing everywhere.
And since they’re probably conservationists too, they’d probably love it if it was ‘natural’, and the place was full of flies and cockroaches and rats. And in fact cockroaches and rats would probably thrive in such an environment. And they’d probably also drown in the porridge, giving it its scrumptious texture.
Electricity? They’d have windmills. And the windmills would provide just enough power to light their favourite watery dim bulbs, one in the ceiling of each cell. On good days, anyway, when the wind was blowing.
Now, personally I’d hate being in one of these places. But that’s just because I love positive freedom. But what I want doesn’t matter: it’s what they want that matters. And they’d love it, because they love negative freedom. They love constraint. They want to be slaves. Because they think that slavery is freedom.
So I don’t think anyone should have any qualms about building a damp, draughty, rat-infested prison for them.
And just in case they didn’t like it, there’d be a
Prison Complaint Officer facility outreach attendant to whom they could voice their dissatisfaction – like, for instance, that there wasn’t enough grit in the porridge – and steps could be taken to correct the error, and more grit added.
No, sending all these people to prison wouldn’t be punishment: it would be giving them exactly what they’ve always wanted, answering all their prayers. And when Deborah Arnott was first led into her cell, and saw the water dripping from the wan dimbulb in the ceiling, and trickling down the slimy walls onto a floor seething with cockroaches, she’d probably break out in a broad smile, and say: “It’s lovely! It’s a dream come true.”
And once the antis were all living in their healthy ideal world, we could go back to living in our ideal world: the one in which we sat in pubs and drank beer and smoked cigarettes, and in which we were free.