What is the optimum size for a state? That rather Socratic question came to mind this morning as I considered the Catalonian crisis, which rumbled on over the weekend with approaching one million demonstrators on the streets of Barcelona.
Eight former members of Catalonia’s dissolved Cabinet and two activists are in jail while Spanish authorities investigate their alleged roles in promoting an illegal declaration of independence last month in violation of Spain’s Constitution.
Something like another six members of the former Catalonian government have fled to Belgium, and are complaining of being treated like criminals or drug traffickers or paedophiles.
Their crime was to want Catalonian independence, Catalonian self-government. That is also the UK’s crime, in voting for Brexit. And it’s also my crime, in choosing to carry on smoking.
For the same question lies at the root of all of them. Who decides? Who rules? Is it up to the EU whether the UK is allowed to leave? Is it up to Spain whether Catalonia is allowed to secede from it? Is it up to Tobacco Control whether I am allowed to smoke? Or is it up to the UK, Catalonia, and me.
In each case, it’s some relatively small scale entity seeking independence from some larger scale entity.
Civil wars grow out of such conflicts. In fact WW1 kicked off when a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914. It was, in effect, a European civil war. And ultimately it was all about who decides, who rules.
On the one hand there are forces which act to form large scale political institutions like the EU, or the UK, or Spain. And on the other hand there are always small scale political institutions that are trying to break away from the large scale organisations, like the UK from the EU, or Catalonia from Spain, or me from Tobacco Control. There’s a constant tension. For there are always rivalries between different places, and between different people. What I want, and what you want, are always going to be two different things.
The only odd thing about the various conflicts of interest that I’ve mentioned is that only two of the three are treated as serious political problems. For in the case of Brexit and Catalonia, both are the subject of intensive debate in government and the media. But smoking bans receive no debate at all. They are just announced. This country will ban smoking tomorrow, and that country will ban it next year. They affect millions of people very intimately, but they receive no debate.
And that is because they are not seen as political matters, but matters of Public Health or medicine. Smoking bans are “doctor’s orders” which are quite separate from orders issued by governments. And “doctor’s orders” are always unquestionable. The medical profession has become as unquestionable an authority as the Pope in Rome. Doctors have become infallible.
But if nobody else thinks that smoking bans are a political issue, I most certainly think they are. And I think that they are going to become one of the greatest political issues of all time over the next few decades, and even the next few centuries.
And that’s because they affect very large numbers of people, all over the world. And they affect them in the most intimate ways.
And they are also extremely divisive.
And they are, above all, not being recognised as a political problem. They are not being addressed. They are being allowed to fester, and so they get worse.
There is currently a global pandemic of smoking bans, spreading around the world like a plague, yet nobody in authority is doing anything about it, because nobody in authority sees it as being any sort of a problem at all. In fact they generally tend to see smoking bans as good things. And they see them as good things because they think that “doctor’s orders” are always good things. And because many of the (mad) doctors think that it is they who are fighting against a global pandemic of tobacco, against which their smoking bans are health measures no different from draining malarial swamps.
But for smokers, smoking bans are the plague that afflicts them, and from which they seek to flee, just like they would flee from the Black Death. For smoking bans cause suffering among smokers, just like any other disease. Smoking bans cause them to be reviled as lepers, “exiled to the outdoors”, fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, refused medical attention, and in some cases even murdered. And smoking bans shatter communities, fracture marriages, sunder friendships. And they bankrupt pubs, cafes, restaurants, clubs, casinos, snooker clubs, bingo halls, working men’s clubs. The only good thing that comes out of smoking bans is that all those caught up in them live longer in the wasteland they create. Except, alas, not even that is true.
The political problem of smoking bans really grows out of the political unaccountability of the medical profession that issues the “doctor’s orders”. Tobacco Control and the WHO are not democratic organisations. They are accountable to no-one. They are their own closed communities with their own closed cultures. This was demonstrated a few years ago when a WHO Tobacco Control conference evicted members of the public and the media, and held their conference in a close session. People complain the EU is an undemocratic institution, but in comparison to the WHO the EU is a shining beacon of accountability. After all, there actually is a EU parliament. It may only act as a rubber stamp for decisions taken in the EU Commission, but it is nevertheless democratically elected. The WHO, by contrast, is as unaccountable as the Vatican. Its edicts are as unquestionable as any papal bull.
One day the political issue of smoking bans is going to explode all around the world. This will happen because they affect so many people, so intimately and personally. And it will explode because nothing is being done to address it, and the problem has been allowed to fester for so long.
And when it does finally explode, one result will be the destruction of the medical profession in its present undemocratic form. Doctors will be made accountable to the people they are supposed to work for, just like elected governments are accountable to their constituents. And a great many antismoking doctors are going to be expelled from the profession. It will be an event a bit like the dissolution of the monasteries in Britain in the 16th century, when thousands of monks were evicted from their monasteries. And after that there will be no more “doctor’s orders.”