From Dick Puddlecote:
Labour MSP Confirms It Wasn’t About Bar Staff
You may not have heard of Ken Macintosh – not surprising because even Ed Miliband struggles to remember him – but he made quite a revelation in the Scottish Parliament yesterday.
I cannot speak for other members, but my main motivation in voting for and supporting the ban on smoking in public places in Scotland was that it would help us to denormalise smoking, so that we would no longer see people smoking in our pubs or cafes or in most other workaday or social situations, and so that we and our children would no longer see smoking as a normal activity. I believe that the ban has been successful in doing exactly that …
Now, we jewel robbers have always known that the smoking ban was installed on the back of lies and deceit, but it’s nice to see it officially recorded.
I’m not particularly surprised at this. But it did raise a question that seems to me to be always floating around on the edge of this business.
And the question is: Is it really possible for governments to denormalise cultural activities like smoking?
The reason I ask is because it seems to me that a social culture is something that grows out of the interaction of hundreds and thousands and millions of individual people over time. Culture grows from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.
I sometimes think that, culturally, I’m the sum of everybody I’ve ever met, or ever encountered. Things rub off on me. If I think of myself as English, it’s because for most of my life I’ve been surrounded by English people, and their Englishness rubbed off on me. And if I’m a residual Roman Catholic, it’s because that rubbed off too. And if I was once a bit left wing, it was because the university I attended was, like most universities, rather left wing. And if I smoked pot, it was because my friends were smoking it. And if I smoked cigarettes, it was because my friends were smoking them too. And if I got a bit drunk now and then, it was because my friends got a bit drunk now and then too. And if I got to like Leonard Cohen or Fleetwood Mac or Roxy Music or any other band you care to mention, it was because they’d come round with one of their albums and put them on the turntable and say, “You must hear this!” And if I had a turntable that could play vinyl disks, it was because everyone had one. And so on.
And apart from that, there are all the books I’ve read. And all the movies I’ve watched. And all the TV I’ve seen, and the radio I’ve listened to. And the places I’ve been, and the things I’ve seen. And still more beside.
These are all the uncountable eddies and ripples and cross-currents and tides which make up the cultural influences that are continually acting upon everyone. And they come from all directions, and sometimes with surprising force. And they act differently on different people.
And, in my experience, the cultural influence of government amounts to about 0.1% of the total. It has hardly any cultural effect at all.
So what makes governments think that they can change or re-define culture? Because to me it just looks like pissing in the wind. It’ll just blow back over them.
What governments can do, of course, is to make some activities illegal. And that changes behaviour. But it doesn’t change the underlying culture. It just creates a new obstruction for people to get around, like a pothole in a road. The law is like a concrete mole that creates a haven against the sea beyond, but which doesn’t change the behaviour of the sea, which remains as unruly as ever. And, unless the obstruction is kept in good repair, the powerful and anarchical sea will eventually breach it.
And it’s unruly culture that defines what is ‘normal’ and what isn’t. This Ken Macintosh seems to think that banning smoking in pubs and restaurants and workplaces has ‘denormalised’ smoking. But it hasn’t done that at all. Smoking is as culturally normal as it ever was. It’s just that people don’t do it in pubs and restaurants and workplaces any more, because it’s illegal to do so – not because the culture has changed. Take away the obstruction of the law, and it’ll soon be back.
Back in the 1960s, when cannabis and other drugs started appearing in Britain, the government cracked down hard with tough laws and thousands of arrests of drug dealers. They were trying to ‘denormalise’ the drugs. But it didn’t work, and within a decade or two, the drugs were endemic throughout Britain, and a normal part of the culture. And the war on drugs was quietly reined back.
So why does Ken Macintosh think that the smoking ban has changed the culture, and denormalised smoking, when similar legal sanctions failed to denormalise pot smoking 50 years ago? It’s probably because, as an MSP, he’s part of government, and so is naturally inclined to have greater faith in the effectiveness of government programmes than most people do. But that’s really just wishful thinking.
Nevertheless, governments seem to want to press on and ‘denormalise’ not just tobacco, but all sorts of other things. Alcohol. Meat. Sugar. Salt. And they’re not going to be any more successful with them either. Because they are also embedded in the culture, and part of normal, everyday life. It’ll be no more successful than building an Atlantic Wall all around the coast of Britain to keep out the unruly ocean, and make the coastline storm-free and child-paddling-friendly. It’ll seem to work for a while, but then the Wall will be breached first here and then there, and then a whole 100 mile stretch of it will be washed away in some great storm. And it will come to be seen to be a prohibitively expensive and futile measure that should never have been undertaken in the first place.