Brian Monteith: Giving fresh look to old politics

A huge sign made from cigarette butts makes its point in Sydney. Picture: GettyA huge sign made from cigarette butts makes its point in Sydney. Picture: Getty
A huge sign made from cigarette butts makes its point in Sydney. Picture: Getty
Unpalatable as it may seem, the smoking ban shows that nothing makes a party look old like regulation no matter what, writes Brian Monteith

As we approach the Christmas celebrations and the end of 2014, our politicians will no doubt be thinking what next year’s general election will bring; what it will mean for them, their parties and their policies. We even hear them talking on the radio and television, quoting the number of days until 7 May as if to heighten the event’s importance. But for the public, there remains an elephant in the room that has driven many voters to desert the establishment parties and contemplate voting for the UK Independence Party or the Greens – namely that the old parties are all the same.

Those who voted Conservative in 2010 – and that was more than 400,000 voters in Scotland – might have thought they would get a different type of government, but on too many fronts the differences with Labour’s policies are marginal. Conservatives like to talk about tax cuts and Labour likes to talk about higher spending, but the comparisons are often exaggerated to attract votes and both policies look distinctly challenging at a time when deficit reduction has become the overriding economic target.

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Despite some attempts to reduce the size of the state in our economy, one aspect that remains the same for the establishment parties – which in Scotland includes the SNP – is their penchant for increasing the amount of regulations or laws that can result in a criminal prosecution. The growth in state intervention to socially engineer our behaviour, and the need to police the regulations used to achieve the desired outcomes, ensures that the number of new crimes rises inexorably.

A day does not seem to go by without somebody somewhere suggesting a new ban and a politician responding with a supportive comment, the colour of the party label being of no importance. Using a freedom of information request, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, an independent Labour peer, has confirmed that since 2009, the number of criminal offences for which UK citizens can be convicted has increased by 1,785. Of those, 712 were created in the last year of the Labour government, and a further 1,073 by the coalition government between 2010 and 2013.


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Politicians often justify their interventions by saying that they are applying evidence-based policy, but what if the evidence contradicts their assertions? Well they ignore it of course, or cherry-pick the parts that support their case. What if the policies – that, remember, can result in criminal proceedings – deliver perverse results, even making a situation worse? Do they repeal their laws, do they fess up and seek to reverse their damage? Rarely, and even then it normally requires a change in government (or at least the politician in charge). But what if there is a consensus between political parties, how, then, can evidence result in a policy change?

For an example of this problem we need look no further than how governments of all colours have applied public health policies to control smoking, irrespective of the evidence that suggests they are not working and without any regard to the consequences for businesses.

The evidence about adult smoking rates tells us that it has been in consistent long-term decline before various bans on the advertising, retail display and smoking in public places were introduced throughout the UK. Add these bans to the increased taxes and we should have expected an acceleration of that existing trend, but instead we are now seeing that in some groups the number of smokers is increasing, such as in Scotland where it has risen from 22.9 per cent in 2012 to 23.1 per cent in 2013. Rather than question why the policies have failed, we can expect demands for even stronger bans and yet more demonisation and persecution of smokers. A ban on smoking in cars will come, first where children are present (as passed in Ireland last week) but then in all cases – giving the pretext to ban smoking in our homes.

The SNP has been in the vanguard of such public health policies and is very keen to introduce the type of intentionally ugly standardised packaging that has been adopted in Australia, ostensibly to discourage smoking by children (although already illegal). For the moment, the SNP is holding off from introducing legislation as it waits to see what the coalition government at Westminster decides to do. That decision has been expected for nearly two months and could yet come any time before the general election but, as we wait, the evidence coming out of Australia tells us that not only is the policy a failure, it is delivering the opposite of the desired effect.

The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare has established that smoking rates of teens in the period 2010-2013 have increased by 36 per cent while, by mid-2014, illicit tobacco sales had risen by nearly 25 per cent to 14.3 per cent of consumption from 11.5 per cent in 2012. How can the UK government forge ahead with the policy in the face of such evidence – and how then could the SNP choose to do so if the UK government sees sense and holds off?

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The UK government cannot simply dismiss the evidence. If it does, then it is not applying “evidence-based policy” but being driven by public health ideology or sheer prejudice. A recent study by Chris Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs demonstrated how the smoking ban had played a significant role in the closure of 6,000 pubs since 2006 – but is any mainstream politician advocating a relaxation of that ban?

What comes in smoking ultimately follows in public health targets. Although it was strenuously denied at the time in Australia that the standardised packaging of tobacco could apply to alcohol and foods, no sooner had the packaging controls been introduced than activists targeted spirits and fast foods.

When faced with political parties that all say the same, and especially when what those politicians say is in direct contradiction to the everyday experience of ordinary people, then new parties appear attractive. It is no mistake that Nigel Farage is regularly seen with a pint in one hand and having a legal smoke outside. When the old parties seem so attached to corporate business so the Greens can look refreshing to those that believe small is beautiful. Politicians should heed the evidence or be damned by it.


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