frank_davis (frank_davis) wrote,

Permission to Speak

A day or so back Tom Harris quoted from a Labour List piece by Michael Merrick - Culture clash: how Labour can look to reconnect with the poor -, wondering why people were deserting Labour and what could be done to get them back.

Often, the response is that the party needs to reconnect with its core vote, that it needs to reach out to those who feel abandoned. I absolutely agree. The problem is that any return to the 'core vote' is only ever conceived in economic terms. Whilst there is undoubtedly value in this strategy, it can only ever have limited impact, because it only ever addresses a limited part of the problem. The truth is that for those who feel alienated, pushed to the outside of public life, the dispossession is cultural every bit as much as it is economic...

Whole communities feel dispossessed, trapped in a country that is changing at a rapid pace - a transformation that affects the poorest communities more than anyone else, but over which they feel they have had less of a say than anybody else.

Further on Merrick writes about New Labour's new ideology:

the disillusionment of the electorate is at least partly down to the fact the Labour Party has embraced an ideology that actively undermines the beliefs and culture of ordinary working people...

the general beliefs of vast swathes of the electorate are demonised and ridiculed by an elite interested only in securing the dominance of their own particular worldview

He identifies the problem as a clash of cultures:

[This] does little but demonstrate with crystal clarity precisely what it is people are angry about - 'these are our concerns, but none of you will listen'. And of course they won't. Because at root this is a clash of cultures.

...the Labour Party has chosen to sacrifice its traditional roots in defence of a shiny new social creed it likes to call 'liberalism'. Truth is, the cultural underpinnings of this creed, originating in the post-1968 student 'resistance' movements, are thoroughly middle-class, individualistic and bourgeois...

So there all these ordinary working people who feel culturally dispossessed, and nobody in the Labour party will listen to them. It's not just about immigration that they're not listened to, but also school/parental discipline, capital punishment, patriotism, euro-scepticism, and morality. And the reason that nobody will listen to them is because the Labour party has abandoned its traditional roots for a liberal (that'll be 'liberal' in the American sense, and not in the least bit 'liberal' in the traditional English sense) ideology which grew up in the aftermath of the 1960s.

I won't disagree with a word of that. I think it's almost exactly right. The Labour party has been taken over by latte Guardianistas and champagne socialists who have little or nothing - and want little or nothing - to do with the working men having a beer inside (and a cigarette outside) a traditional English pub, and who voted Labour into office 12 years ago. A cultural war has been launched by the New Labour establishment upon the Old Labour voters they're supposed to represent.

But as I read the piece, it was the smoking ban that came sharply to mind. For what better exemplifies that cultural war than the smoking ban? The smoking ban has been the very spearhead of that cultural war. Yet it wasn't mentioned at all by Merrick. But then, the smoking ban is never mentioned anywhere ever. Immigration? That's a genuine, valid issue. The EU? That's another one. Schools? Another biggie. The health service? Certainly. But the smoking ban? Ha, ha. You must be joking. You cannot be serious. The smoking ban is trivial by comparison with the weighty issues of immigration, the EU, housing, education, healthcare, and so on.

But is it?

I'm single, childless, in good health, not quite penniless, and I live out in the Devon countryside. So my interest in schools and education is approximately zero. And my interest in hospitals and healthcare not much greater. And my concern with immigration is nearly zilch. And my interest in the EU is pretty minimal as well (yesterday excepted). None of these things have much of a real, tangible impact upon me. My interest in them is abstract. In order to think about them I have to ask myself: What if I had children? What if I was unwell? What if I lived in Bradford? What if the EU did this or that?

But the smoking ban has had a colossal impact on me. It's estranged me from my local pub and its little community. It's taken away a sense of belonging. It's made me feel like a stranger in my own country. It's made everyday life extraordinarily uncomfortable, as I look for places where I might enjoy a smoke. It's cut me off from friends who no longer go to the unwelcoming pubs. It's divided me from non-smoking friends in ways I never was before. It's bringing me a gradually deepening isolation and alienation. In my entire life I've never known anything so profoundly cruel and divisive - and so utterly unnecessary.

In my life, the EU doesn't matter much. Nor does education, healthcare, or immigration. In my life, the smoking ban matters more than all of them put together. What can the EU do to me? Take away my country and its traditions? The smoking ban already has already done that. What can immigration do to me? Fill up the country with aliens and strangers who usurp my place? The smoking ban has already done that too, as I sit outside banished from my pub. What does it matter to me what becomes of hospitals and healthcare? As a smoker I'm likely to be denied any access to them anyway. What concern should I have for education and morality, when schools are places where children are taught intolerance for smokers (and little else as far as I can see)?

The smoking ban gave me a whole set of problems where there weren't any problems before. And it hasn't even stopped me smoking, like it was supposed to. Nor even reduced it in the slightest. In fact it's made me determined to carry on smoking regardless. It's made me angry, and when I'm angry I smoke more, not less.

And the smoking ban has made me not only angry but also increasingly intolerant. Why should I continue to be tolerant now that I am no longer tolerated? Is intolerance a one-way street, so that only antismoking bigots are allowed to practise and promote intolerance, while smokers must suffer in silence? No, of course it isn't. The intolerance of antismokers for me results in my reciprocal intolerance for them. And official state-sponsored intolerance of smokers has made me intolerant of the state and of officialdom in all its forms. And particularly this parliament and the MPs that voted for the smoking ban that's made my life so hard for me. And the EU too, which just looks like another layer of crushing bureaucracy. In fact the smoking ban has made me more intolerant of absolutely everything. I don't have any genuine immigration problem in my life here in rural Devon, but I'm less tolerant of it anyway. And I'm markedly less tolerant of Islam, even if it's another personal non-problem. The health service and the medical profession? Don't talk to me about that crew of rabid antismokers, or I'll burst a blood vessel.

So if anyone came and asked me what I thought about immigration, Islam, the health service, the EU, the UK parliament, I'd come out with markedly more intolerant and hawkish views than I would have only 3 years ago, when I was a tolerant Lib-Demy sort of person. But it wouldn't be because I had a real problem with any of them, but because the smoking ban has made me into a generally far more intolerant person than I once was. But nobody will ask me what I feel about the smoking ban. People with clipboards will ask me my views on immigration, Islam, the EU, and all the rest of it, because those are regarded as genuine issues of concern. But the smoking ban is not regarded as something that merits equivalent attention. It's supposed to be just a successful public health measure, which everyone loves, particularly smokers.

And everyone knows that they're not supposed to mention the smoking ban. It's supposed to be a trivial non-issue. Not as important as real, bread-and-butter issues like immigration and the EU. People don't feel they're allowed to talk about the ban. Asking his constituents about immigration, Tom Harris reported that

...they’re talking about their concerns now because it’s only now they feel they have “permission” to do so.

Why do people feel they need, like Corporal Jones in Dad's Army, 'permission to speak'? Because everybody knows what they're supposed to think. They're told every day by the righteous on TV and radio and in newspapers. And while they don't have permission to speak freely, they'll just parrot what they've been told they should think, rather than what they actually think. And if they think that they now have permission to say what they feel about immigration, that's because a few politicians (mostly BNP) have been brave enough to drag it into the public arena of debate, and in so doing 'permitted' everyone else to speak their minds.

But nobody has permission to speak about the smoking ban. That remains a no-no. No politician has managed to haul that one into the public discourse as a serious issue in its own right. Any politician who tried would probably get howled down by irate health lobbyists and doctors, much like climate change sceptics today. And Michael Merrick didn't mention it either, although he must know about that particular elephant in the room.

And yet my own guess is that the smoking ban has had by far the greatest cultural impact upon Britain over the past 3 years than anything else. It's been during that time that UKIP and the BNP (both of which are against the smoking ban) have begun to make significant electoral progress. It's been during that time that the public esteem for MPs (who voted for the ban) has collapsed. And EU scepticism has continued to mount. And respect for authorities has plunged.

One day people will get 'permission to speak' about the smoking ban, and say what they really feel rather than what they're supposed to feel. And I bet there'll be an eruption of protest at it. All sorts of horror stories will be told. And I also bet that it will be found that, just like with me, anger at MPs' expenses and the EU and immigration and everything else will turn out very often to simply be 'impermissible' anger at the smoking ban redirected at 'permissible' targets. And maybe then politicians and pundits and media will finally wake up and realise what how enormously socially and culturally destructive the smoking ban has truly been.
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