Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 4 November 2005
I know that, in the grand scheme of things, whether or not you’re allowed a Marlboro with your pint of Adnams in the Horse and Groom or a nice Chilean cabernet with your meal in the restaurant car on the 20.30 from Liverpool Street doesn’t really matter that much. But for some reason — not just that I frequently enjoy a fag with my beer and once a week polish off a half-bottle of red with my dinner on the way home — I get hot under the collar when I read about government plans to ban smoking in pubs and drinking on public transport.
OK, I know that the pub smoking ban is now not likely to be complete, so I’ll still be able to light up in the two pubs I use most frequently, as long as I don’t do so at the bar — neither the aforementioned Horse and Groom (Woodbridge Road, Ipswich) nor the Prince Arthur in Charles Square, Hoxton, do food as long as you don’t count pork scratchings or cheese sandwiches.
And OK, I realise that the idea of banning booze on public transport is just an idea and is a long way from the statute book: it made the headlines last weekend because it was contained in a policy paper by Louise Casey, aka “Tony Blair’s anti-social behaviour tsar”, and was discussed at a meeting at Chequers.
Oh, all right, and I also know that I could live with a pub smoking ban or a public transport booze ban. I cope perfectly well with smoking bans imposed by my various workplaces, by cinemas, theatres, shops and public transport and, increasingly, by non-smoking friends in their homes. If smoking is banned in pubs and restaurants, I’ll just go outside for a snout if I want one. And I’m not such a hopeless alcoholic that I couldn’t survive a train journey without a little tipple.
My problem is that I don’t see why it’s the state’s business to interfere with these minutiae of my everyday life. I accept that tobacco smoke is unpleasant to many non-smokers and that it is bad for the health. I agree that no one should be forced to endure a smoky atmosphere against their will.
But, as things stand, coercion doesn’t come into it. People can choose whether or not to visit a pub or restaurant in which smoking is allowed — and they can choose whether or not to work in one, just as they can choose whether or not to work in an abattoir or as a motorcycle courier. It might be really stupid to opt for drinking, eating or working in a place that’s smoky; it’s certainly stupid to smoke. But if I choose to be stupid, it’s a decision that I’ve made, and it’s not up to the state to force me to change my mind.
Drinking on public transport is different in one respect: the apparent motive for the proposed ban is to prevent passengers who are the worse for wear from making life unpleasant for those that are not. I don’t have a problem with this motive, in that I’m all in favour of everyone being able to travel without being harassed by drunks.
But think about it. There are already all sorts of laws proscribing the sort of behaviour the ban is aimed at curtailing: the problem is that there is no way of enforcing them. In the interest of efficiency, conductors have been removed from buses and guards from trains, and the cops are too busy doing more important things to get involved.
The simple truth is that banning booze on public transport won’t make a blind bit of difference. It won’t stop anyone getting on a bus or a train steaming drunk and spoiling for a fight. And, unless it is accompanied by the reintroduction of conductors and guards, it will be no more enforceable than existing laws. Anyone who really wants to get pissed on the train or bus will buy a few tinnies or a bottle before embarking on their journey, then tell anyone who challenges their drinking to get lost. The sole effect of a ban will be to deny a harmless pleasure to passengers who pose no threat to anyone.
I know that complaints about the “nanny state” are a staple of the rightwing press — and that many of the complainants against drinking and smoking bans take rather a different position when it comes to sex and drugs. But I’m consistent. If you want to get totally Flintoffed or completely Cameroned, as far as I’m concerned you can do it whenever you like as long as you don’t sing tuneless Norwich City songs or bore me to tears with the story of your life while I’m trying to read the Economist on my way home on a Friday night. And if you wish to engage in whatever nefarious sexual pratice takes your fancy in private with another consenting adult — or indeed other consenting adults or none — that’s fine by me too. It’s none of my business.
And if it’s none of my business, it’s none of the state’s business either. There is a private sphere in which the state should have no role beyond advice — that smoking is bad for your health, that drinking too much and too often turns you into an alcoholic, that keed spills or that vigorous buggery without a condom spreads Aids. If people take notice, fine. If they don’t, and keep on shagging shamelessly without any protection after a night on the tiles drinking, smoking furiously and snorting coke, what the state needs is not new legislation but a new advertising agency.