Does anyone know what’s happening to the UK Labour party? It seems to me to be in process of terminal disintegration. They had an acrimonious leadership election after the general election last year, and they’re having another one in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
Not that I’m in the least bit bothered. It was, after all, Tony Blair’s Labour government that brought in the UK smoking ban of 1 July 2007, for which 90% of Labour MPs voted – and 95% of Lib Dem MPs. Do you remember the Lib Dems? Silly me, I used to vote Lib Dem as regular as clockwork. But after 95% of them had voted to expel smokers like me from society, I concluded that they were neither Lib nor Dem, and have never voted for them since. I’ve completely lost interest in them. I don’t even know who their current leader is. And I don’t want to know. All I know is that they had about 60 MPs a few years ago, and now they’ve got just 8. I wonder why?
The only UK party that’s still (just about) holding together is the Conservative party. Only about 35% of Conservative MPs voted for the smoking ban. They now have a pro-EU PM with a cabinet full of anti-EU MPs. How long is that likely to last?
It’s not just that the main UK political parties are disintegrating. It’s also that the United Kingdom itself is showing signs of disintegration. Our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, clearly wants to hold the both the Conservative party and the UK together. And she probably wants to hold the EU together too.
And, yes, you guessed, the EU is disintegrating as well. The entire ramshackle ‘project’ is on the rocks.
And the situation isn’t much better in the USA, where the wildcard Donald Trump has overthrown the old leadership of the Republican party, and become its new leader and presidential nominee. And the Democratic party is deeply torn between the establishment Hillary Clinton and the radical Bernie Sanders.
In some ways, it’s all a crisis of top down control. Globalisation is all about the attempt to create a top down global world order. The EU is all about top down control of a new European superstate. And political parties and governments are all about top down control of sovereign states. And smoking bans are prime examples of top down control, of top down micromanagement of ordinary people’s lives.
Yet it seems that the more top down control is being exerted, the more the top down controlling organisations are showing signs of disintegration. Less than 10 years after the EU parliament voted for a European-wide smoking ban, the EU is disintegrating. Is it entirely accidental that at least two (Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen) of the leaders of anti-EU parties are overt smokers?
The disintegration is also evident in the media. In the past, the news was top down controlled by media outfits as old as the political parties on which they reported. They defined what was and what wasn’t news. But in the internet era, any number of online news outlets (e.g. Drudge, Huffpo) have emerged. And, armed with mobile phone colour video cameras, absolutely anyone can now be simultaneously reporter, editor, and publisher. Instead of getting their news from one or two sources, people increasingly get it from hundreds of different sources.
In many ways, the campaign battle between Clinton and Trump is one between the old top down megaphone media and the new dispersed internet media. Hillary Clinton’s campaign more or less owns the US mainstream media, and broadcasts carefully-planned multi-million dollar campaign ads. But the same was true of the Republican establishment, and that didn’t stop Donald Trump trouncing the lot of them. Trump spent next to nothing on the megaphone media, and instead relied on instant responses on Twitter and Facebook and Youtube. It takes the Clinton machine days to respond to events that Trump responds to in minutes. Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton is Cassius Clay versus Sonny Liston.
But if the disintegration is strongest anywhere, it’s right at the bottom, in my experience. Ten years ago, I had a wide circle of long-standing friends. And now they’re all gone, casualties of smoking bans that divided communities and closed pubs and cafes. I’m very far from being the only such casualty, as a survey I helped organise a few years back showed.
And perhaps what we’re seeing is a process of disintegration that started at the bottom of a hitherto-cohesive society, and has now propagated all the way up to the very top. If societies are houses of cards, then all it takes is a few cards knocked out at the bottom for the whole thing to come down in a progressive WTC-style concertina collapse. For when you demonise and marginalise 30% of your political base, it’s not going to be very long before you’ll feel the economic and political and social consequences of doing so.
It’s obvious, really. If you shatter the personal ties of camaraderie and friendship between millions of people, you will also shatter the ties that hold political institutions together. For political institutions – such as political parties or sovereign states – are made up of people. And you don’t need to break all the bonds between everyone to cease to have a cohesive society. You just need to break enough, or weaken enough, to bring the whole card house down.
The top down smoking bans that have been introduced all over the world have been hailed as great successes in the self-congratulatory megaphone media because they didn’t result in immediate riots. But the actual results were far more insidious. The bans shattered social bonds just as effectively as a Boeing 757 shatters the columns inside the World Trade Center building through which it’s ploughing. For a while the badly-weakened building stands, until the fires raging inside weaken enough of the remaining columns and beams to cause them to fail too, so that collapse becomes unstoppable.
In a sense it’s self-correcting. As political institutions disintegrate, it becomes impossible for them to exert top down control. The disintegration of the EU will mark the end of top down EU control. And the disintegration of the UK, should it happen, will mark the end of top down Westminster control. Control will fall into the hands of more and more and smaller and smaller political institutions.
And then maybe… just maybe, as top down control weakens, you’ll see pubs, desperate for customers, starting to flout smoking bans, because there’s no support for them, and no one left to enforce them.