I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Tony Benn, the Labour prime minister Britain never had. I think it may be because he smoked a pipe. And he kept on smoking it even when he was touring the country giving talks after the smoking ban.
However I also have a bit of a soft spot for Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung (Zedong?) for the exact same reason. So maybe judging people by whether they smoke or not isn’t a foolproof method. Although it works quite well with Hitler and Michael Bloomberg.
I’ve never heard anything that Tony Benn might have had to say about the UK smoking ban, or smoking bans in general. He died in 2014, so he’d had 7 years experience of it, and must have had an opinion.
But, anecdotally, I read somewhere once that when No Smoking signs started appearing in British Rail train carriages he was riding in, he used to just stick something over the signs, and then light his pipe.
A week or so back I came across a YouTube video of him speaking (in 2008, I’d guess). In the short 10-minute speech he set out his view of the world, and what needed to be done about it.
One passage, 2 minutes and 15 seconds into the video, set me thinking. He said:
“The only real wealth in the world is land, and the resources that lie under it, and the people. They are the real source of wealth.”
What is wealth? Is that really what wealth is: Land, resources, and people?
I came to a very different opinion in Idle Theory, in which all wealth was idle time, and the wealthiest people were the idlest people, and the poorest were the busiest. Wealth didn’t consist of land, resources, and people, but instead of something intangible (idle time) that people made of the land and its resources.
Here in England where I live, we have the exact same land and resources as we had one thousand years ago, and we have pretty much the exact same people, only a lot more of them. In 1000 AD the population of England and Wales was about 1.6 million: now the population of Britain (which is a bit larger than England and Wales) is about 65 million.
But even given the same land and resources, Britain now is (in my view) a much, much wealthier country than it was a thousand years ago. We all live much easier and idler lives than we did back then. So what has changed? Is it just that there are 40 times as many people than there was back then? Shouldn’t that mean that we should be 40 times poorer, with so little shared between 40 times more people? Or is it that a country becomes richer the more people that are living in it?
What’s changed is the technology that is available to us. We now have engines and vehicles and communications and computing power that was completely unavailable to anyone 1000 years ago. Back then, pretty much the entire population was working the land with hoes and simple ploughs. Now a farmer with a tractor and other engines only needs a few extra hands to manage a large farm. It’s one reason why most of the population has become concentrated in cities. It’s also the reason why we can support 40 times as many people as before.
So wealth isn’t just land, resources, and people. It’s more complicated than that. Or perhaps it’s simpler than that.
There seems to be an almost universal propensity to see wealth as something tangible: land, property, gold, money, treasure, cattle, whatever. But I think the only wealth that anyone ever has is the idle time in which to do as they like. And even multi-billionaires like Donald Trump or George Soros can only ever have, at most, all the days of their life as idle time in which to do as they like.
Later on (4:25) in his brief talk Tony Benn said something else that I questioned:
“In wartime there are no economic arguments at all. I’ve never heard a general say that I can’t bomb Baghdad this month because I’ve exceeded my budget. In wartime you do whatever is required. And we should adopt the principle that in peacetime you do whatever is required.”
Is it true that no economic arguments apply in wartime? The way I see it, all wars are economic wars. When a city is besieged, and the supply of food to it cut off, that is an economic constraint placed upon it, and a very powerful one indeed. And furthermore, in all the wars in history, it has required money to buy the food and armaments and other supplies needed to keep any army in the field. In ancient Rome it was rich men like Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus who were able to field such armies. In WW1 and WW2 Britain borrowed heavily from the USA to maintain its war effort, and spent the next 50+ years paying off the debt.
From the point of view of Idle Theory, it is the idlest countries which can raise the largest armies. And it was because their social idleness was so high that Britain and France and Germany could in WW1 and WW2 raise huge armies of millions of men that were far larger than any ever seen before in human history. Prior to that time, most armies consisted of 10,000 men or so. And only campaigned during the campaign season
I used to be a bit of a left-winger in my younger days. And that was because I was a bit of an idealist (like Tony Benn), as most young people are. But these days I’m far less concerned with how the world ought to be than with how it actually is. I’m a realist rather than an idealist. I’m interested in understanding the real world, not cooking up fantasies of what it might one day become. And I think that all the harm in the world is always being done by idealistic fantasists with one or other wacky plan they’ve got for everybody. And the EU is another one of these wacky fantasies. And so also is the War on Smoking. And far too much else as well.