My attention was today drawn to the late Lord Ralph Harris:
An economist, and director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and founder of the Bruges group, he also became chairman of Forest.
He was chairman of and the prime mover in Forest (the Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco), and a member of the Lords and Commons Pipesmokers Club. He was seldom seen without a pipe clenched between his teeth – “You’ll like this,” he would assure non-smokers around him as he lit up, “it’s a meerschaum” – and usually had a couple more in his pockets, in case of emergency.
When in 1995 Network SouthEast introduced a smoking ban on the London to Brighton route, a group of commuters commandeered a carriage and continued to light up. Harris was tireless in raising the subject in newspapers and in the Lords, and produced a 22-page report urging the company to reinstate a smoking carriage.
He then convened a meeting in a pub near Victoria station and heard evidence from both sides in the dispute. “BR is indicted in my view of skulduggery,” he declared, pouring particular scorn on a survey which purported to show overwhelming support for the ban.
He was equally sceptical of the claims of the medical establishment that passive smoking was a significant threat to health, publicly challenging the chief medical officer to produce any evidence of harm in a piece entitled Smoking Out the Truth. In 1998 he produced Murder a Cigarette, which was devoted both to extolling the joys of tobacco and casting doubt on the scientific evidence of its dangers.
With his centre parting and toothbrush moustache, Harris exuded a gentle, old-fashioned charm which made him excellent company, as well as proving an effective tool for promoting his beliefs. He was an accomplished amateur conjuror and was fond of bathing in the sea (he took regular dips off Eastbourne).
Harris’s favourite dinner was lamb chops with roast potatoes, followed by apple pie, and he always travelled with a portable pepper grinder, in case black pepper could not be found on the table.
Those genuine freedom fighters included Ralph Harris who was chairman of Forest from 1987 until his death in 2006; Gian Turci; and Joe Jackson.
In 2005 Ralph (aka Lord Harris of High Cross) wrote a booklet published by Forest called ‘Smoking Out The Truth: A Challenge to the Chief Medical Officer’. It began:
Hardly a week is allowed to pass without some new scare story about the perils of ‘passive smoking’. One of the latest, based on an experiment in an Italian garage, is that tobacco smoke is more lethal than car exhaust fumes. Another was that ‘passive smoking’ is even more dangerous that direct smoking …
As a lifelong pipe man I have increasingly come to mistrust the dogmatic vehemence with which the stop smoking (SS) brigade recycle their denunciations of ‘passive smoking’. Certainly, smoke may be irritating or even upsetting to sensitive bystanders, as are popcorn, perfume and garlic on crowded tube trains. But lethal?
Despite a barrage of media publicity most non-smokers in my experience remained unmoved by dire warnings that tobacco smoke – massively diluted in the atmosphere – could actually kill them. It is this common sense implausibility that has goaded the tight network of anti-smoking lobbyists – ever more shrilly – to demonise ETS and brandish mounting estimates of its death toll.
AFTER MUCH anxious pondering I have come to the settled conclusion that what we are witnessing here is a variant of political correctness which I would call ‘collective conviction’.
I define this condition as a dogmatic shared sense of absolute certainty among a mutually supporting intellectual elite. It is not unique to the smoking debate, or rather non-debate. On other important topics, such as ‘global warming’, we have seen how a ruling consensus is first established by the conceit of a coterie of prominent, articulate pioneers.
The Big Idea then spreads by the contagion of novelty and fashion until it infects almost the whole intellectual class. Finally, as Hayek showed in his scholarly essay on The Intellectuals and Socialism, the pervasive influence of journalists and other ‘second-hand dealers in ideas’ completes the chain of collective conviction by establishing a new consensus which comes to dominate public discussion, opinion and, ultimately, public policy.
I witnessed this process at close hand in my own subject of economics after the last war when the novel theories of J M (later Lord) Keynes led to a radical school of thought that spawned powerful lobbies among trade unions, industrialists, academics and footloose political activists which came to dominate public thinking and policy on the central questions of unemployment and planning.
As with the issue of ‘passive smoking’, the broadcasting and print media largely fell in with the new ‘spirit of the time’ and it took some courage for a comparative handful of
independent, non-conforming economists, mostly associated with the Institute of Economic Affairs, to withstand the stampede and keep alive the classical tradition of free markets and monetary policy. The tables were eventually turned on the Keynesians not only by the superior logic of their critics but by the brute force of the resulting inflation and disorder which those critics had long predicted.
If the fashionable claims of those I might call ‘passive thinkers on passive smoking’ could similarly be put to the test of experience I have not the least doubt they would be equally discredited. As it is so much intellectual capital has been invested in this will of the wisp of ETS that, as we saw with the Royal Institution seminar, its practitioners fiercely oppose even the usual processes of civilised open debate with their equals who dare to disagree. Indeed, dissent is taken to disqualify sceptics from participating in serious public discourse!
I’ve added the pdf to my reference section under passive smoking.
And who would you see smoking a meerschaum pipe today? There used to be lots of them, but they don’t make men like that any more.