Simon Clark today (my emphasis added):
The problem is, freedom means very different things to different people. One of my favourite films is The Lives of Others which highlights the surveillance activities of the Stasi in East Germany in the 1980s. I have blogged about my week in Moscow in 1981 and this film conveys perfectly the claustrophobic, fearful yet curiously optimistic environment I encountered.
The point is, the war on tobacco can pale into insignificance compared to the loss of other freedoms. Indeed, a few weeks ago I addressed a small group of Russian journalists on the subject of smoking bans. One or two laughed when I described the misery the ban has inflicted on some people in the UK.Perhaps my message got lost in translation but I got the impression that in the context of even recent Russian history, the freedom to smoke in public places is considered a rather minor issue.
Anyway, I did my best on Saturday to explain the significance of the war on tobacco and why it matters. I argued, for example, that it’s a microcosm of what’s wrong with society (and the Conservative party) because it breeds intolerance and extremism. It encourages the abuse of science and statistics and much more. Ultimately, I said, the war on tobacco has resulted in a shocking abuse of power, often by unelected mandarins in Whitehall.
I’ve always thought that the non-smoking Simon Clark has never felt that the loss of freedom caused by smoking bans was of much significance by comparison with, say, being sent to a Siberian gulag for 10 years. It’s probably one reason why he runs a relatively low key campaign against smoking bans.
I’m not surprised he feels this way. I think it’s the way that a great many non-smokers feel about the smoking ban: that it’s a bit unfair, but there are a great many worse things that could happen to someone. They just don’t get it.
But I think one has to experience these things personally before one can truly know what effects they have. I’ve never been sent to prison, let alone a Siberian gulag, and so I have no experience of what that’s like. I can guess what it might be like, of course. And I can read accounts of prison or gulag life. But I can never really enter into the experience until I’ve lived it myself.
But in the case of the UK smoking ban, I don’t have to guess what it’s like. It’s been my lived experience for the past five years.
Yet before the ban came into effect, on 1 July 2007, I too was having to guess what it was going to be like. Most of the smokers that I knew weren’t too bothered about the prospect. A typical remark was: “It’ll be no trouble. You’ll just nip outside for a quick smoke now and then.” I wasn’t sure that it was going to be that straightforward. I didn’t know what it would be like, but I had a sense of dark foreboding.
In the event, I was profoundly shocked by the impact of the ban both on me and fellow smokers. The first of July was a rather surreal day, during which smokers (myself included) wandered around in shock and disbelief outside the pubs. It was on that day that a stranger came up to me and said: “It’s not a free country any more.” The words are etched in my memory now, because I think that no truer words were said to me that day.
Over the next few weeks, the pubs emptied of their usual afternoon custom. Before the ban, there’d be 10 or more people around the bar inside the River during the afternoon. After the ban there’d be just one or two. If the River didn’t go broke, it was because it was a pub-restaurant, and the restaurant clientele stayed on. They came to eat, after all, not to smoke and drink. So after that, the restaurant was full, and the adjoining bar was all but deserted.
And that was pretty much the end of my social life in Devon. Before the ban, I regularly met up with the few people I knew for a couple of beers and games of pool. After the ban, I hardly saw any of them again.
Most of my old friends still lived in Bristol, where I had lived for many years before moving to Devon to look after my aged mother. But the ban gradually took its toll there too. Part of the reason was that I used to meet up with many of them at pubs or restaurants, and once the pubs were no longer the pleasant and welcoming places they had been, I met up with them less and less. But another part of the reason was that many of my Bristol friends were non-smokers, and some had become antismokers who banned smoking in their own homes. The ban had no impact on the non-smokers, and was welcomed by the antismokers. And the result was that my deeply uncomfortable personal experience was something that most of my old friends simply didn’t share. I may have lived under a cloud since 1 July 2007, but for them life had continued exactly as before. Nor was it ever possible to explain to them in what way my life had become so uncomfortable.
I promptly fell out with my antismoking friends, in some cases very openly. And I drifted apart from my non-smoking friends. And I even had difficulty with my smoking friends, because, while none of them liked the ban, most were of the view that there was nothing that could be done about it anyway.
The result, over the past 5 years, is that I’ve seen less and less of former friends, some of whom I’d known for 30 years or more. For me life took a sharp turn on 1 July 2007, while they went sailing happily on. And all of them entirely oblivious of what had happened to me.
As I see it these days, I was expelled from society that day. I became persona non grata. But it has just taken years for that expulsion to take effect. It was an exile (as Deborah Arnott would call it) that only began on 1 July 2007. And it was an exile that was foreseen (see right margin: “Smokers will be exiled to outdoors.”) and fully intended by the likes of Arnott. They intend to rid the world of smokers.
That this exile/expulsion happened to me, and not to all other smokers, was largely a reflection of my circumstances. I was, if you like, already ‘semi-detached’ from most of my friends by the fact of living 100 miles away from them in Devon. I was also unmarried, and so had no family life to fall back on. And furthermore I didn’t live somewhere where I could bring friends home to entertain them. My social life had been 90% dependent on pubs and restaurants, until they became the forbidding places they are now. So I was already on the margins of society when the smoking ban came along and drove me fully outside.
But I strongly suspect that I am very far from being the only person who has experienced such expulsion. It’s the main reason why I started the ISIS Social Impact Survey a few months back (I’m due to call a halt to it very soon, and ask pollsters to record their findings on the ISIS website. Casual visitors can do the online poll shown in the right margin). Because I think that if my experience has been replicated to a greater or lesser extent by millions of other smokers, then it will amount to a large scale fragmentation of society in the wake of the smoking ban. And Britain will have become rather less of a cohesive society than it was five years ago. I don’t think that is in any sense a good thing.
And there’s not just the social fragmentation, of course, but also the economic damage. I spend most of my time at home now, and far less than I used to spend in pubs and restaurants. And spending less time in these places means spending less money in them. And it means spending less on everything, everywhere. About the only things I spend more money on are whisky and tobacco. And if that is replicated throughout the rest of society, it will amount to an economic recession.
There’s also even a political fragmentation. I used to regard myself as a bit left wing, and was a regular Lib Dem voter. But since nearly all the Lib Dem MPs in parliament voted for the ban, I have never voted for them again. And I’ve more or less completely lost interest in all the main parties. None of them represent me. None of them want to represent me either. And that’s a deep alienation, to which is added the fact that I no longer watch TV, or listen to the radio, or read newspapers. Why should I? This isn’t my country any more.
And then there’s the anger. I’ve been more or less a constantly angry man since 1 July 2007. I think a terrible injustice has been done not just to me, but to millions of others all over Britain, and all over the world.
Because all this is being replicated not just throughout Britain, but all of Europe (except Switzerland) and much of Canada and Australia and New Zealand and the USA, and also in a great many other countries.
It’s not that it’s all been a wholly negative experience. Smoking bans don’t actually kill people (or at least, not that many).
One upside of the ban, when I was living in Devon, was that I got to spend many hours sitting by the river that flowed past my local pub, and became fascinated by its various moods, and even traced it to its source and followed it to its estuary on the Devon coast.
And I also have hours and hours and hours of time to devote to my various numerous projects. I am seldom interrupted. The phone hardly ever rings these days, after all. The result has been that the past year in particular has been among the most productive in my life.
And now also I have my own blog, which over 1000 people read yesterday, and through which I’ve begun to feel that I have made a set of new and like-minded friends all over the world. Which is nice. But if I have so many readers, it is probably largely because (as many of them have told me) that I write about things that they have experienced too.
But my point, in response to Simon Clark, is that the smoking ban has had a monumental impact on my life, in ways that I’m sure it hasn’t on his. And it still is having such an impact. The smoking ban may look like it is insignificant (particularly to Russians), but its effects are nevertheless profound and insidious.
It’s rather like having gentle pressure constantly applied to an arm or a leg. At first you don’t notice it, but gradually your arm or leg goes numb, and then they cease to work properly, and then you have difficulty walking or picking things up, and finally they have to be amputated. All because of a single unyielding slight pressure, which was disregarded as being unimportant.
“Loss of freedom”, “intolerance”, “extremism”, and the “abuse of power and statistics” are all to some extent abstractions. I can write about those things too. But the real impacts of the smoking ban are those that are experienced personally. And those aren’t really part of my lived experience. My freedom has only been fractionally circumscribed. And I never encounter intolerance or extremism (not even my antismoking friends were extremists). What I have experienced is exile, loss of community, widening social divisions, and profound political alienation.
But to go back to what lies outside my experience – being sent to a Siberian gulag -, I dare say that while some people took that experience very much to heart (e.g. Alexander Solzhenitsyn), there were others that simply served their time in the gulag, and then went home and picked up their lives where they left off. Some might have even enjoyed their time in the camps, if they were rapidly promoted to positions of power, and gained access to vodka and chocolate and warm accommodation. And everyone has heard of the ‘old lags syndrome’ whereby ex-prisoners commit crimes in order to return to the prison environment with which they have become familiar. There is nothing that says that an experience of one sort or other will invariably be unpleasant for everyone who goes through it.
For example, Dave Atherton remarked, when I first met him a couple of years back, that his social life had become much more intensive and fun since the smoking ban. And good for him too. Nevertheless, he also is a tireless campaigner against the ban.
Personally, my guess is that, in a few years time, many people will belatedly realise that the smoking bans that have been multiplying through the world have been a disastrous social experiment, with enormous negative impacts, and steps will be taken to reverse them. They won’t seem insignificant at all.
Unfortunately, the colossal damage that is being done looks likely to me to be permanent. Just like amputated legs stay amputated when the pressure is lifted. For if the smoking ban were overturned next week, I won’t be recovering my lost friends. Nor will I be reading newspapers and watching TV. Nor will I be voting for Cameron or Clegg or any of the rest of them. My exile, I strongly suspect, will prove permanent.