Terence Blacker: Warning: passive nannying can be dangerous

We become infected by the idea that the state should defend us against ourselves at all costs
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It has become a puzzling, almost involuntary reaction. Recently, I have found that every time I have seen someone being interviewed, snapped at a party or filmed working at a desk with a cigarette in his or her hand, I have experienced a strong wave of prejudice. There, I have concluded, is an independent spirit, someone who loves life.

I should probably be thoroughly ashamed of myself. Any sane, civilised person will not have to be reminded of the terrible charge-sheet against tobacco - suffering, death, a burden on the NHS, the awful scourge of passive smoking which the experts tell us kills off thousands, perhaps millions, every year - to know that here is a habit which should stubbed out forthwith like an old stogie. Perhaps, for such irresponsible thoughts even to have occurred to me, my brain has already been affected by the occasional cigar that, with wild disregard to the health of myself and those around me, I have been known to light up now and then.

But this week it has become clear that my instinct was essentially correct. There has been, rather extraordinarily, a semi-public row within the Cabinet. Our rulers, usually so united in their unshakeable conviction that they are doing the right thing for the rest of us, have fallen out among themselves. A small minority of old-timers, led by John Reid and Jack Straw, have put their egos before the health of the nation, their dinosaur ideas before common sense, compassion, decency, honour and innate sympathy for the underdog, qualities embodied by the other side, led by Patricia Hewitt, Tessa Jowell and others, who want a total ban on smoking in public places.

Or that is the way that the story has been told to us. Rarely in recent history can a news story have been presented in a more openly slanted manner. While battle raged within the Cabinet, a mighty army of the self-righteous was mobilised. Doctors went on air to express their concern and astonishment that the issue should even need discussion: the argument against making public smoking illegal was, it seemed, not simply misguided and irresponsible, but downright immoral.

The usual dreary crew of Labour backbenchers, people who have cheerfully and silently voted for religious intolerance and the increase of police powers, hurried into the studio to utter baleful warnings against any minister who dared to argue for what had been in the Labour manifesto. Suddenly experts were ferociously concerned about something called "the hospitality sector". Those who worked in it, oppressed barmaids and bewildered cleaners, were being made to sacrifice their lives daily so that smokers could indulge their disgusting habit. The possibility that, if they disliked working in a pub with smoke, they could look for another job, perhaps in a smoke-free pub, was not countenanced.

Embarrassingly, a large part of the media played along with the pro-ban lobby. On Radio 4's PM news programme, to quote one example, three fierce anti-smokers were interviewed, while only the Labour MP Mark Fisher - from henceforth a true hero of the anti-nannying faction - was permitted to point out that there were aspects of private behaviour which should be beyond the reach of legislation.

That is, of course, a difficult argument to sustain at moments like this. When freedom is ranged against death, as it was here, it can seem a puny, unimportant thing, something of a luxury. But Fisher was right, as was, by some great miracle, the final decision by the Cabinet.

There is such a thing a thing as passive nannying. When those who have gorged themselves on disapproval, fear and a love of social control break wind in a public place, as they have this week, the rest us have to breathe in the suffocating, debilitating fug which emanates from them. The danger is that we gradually become infected by the idea that the state should defend us against ourselves at all costs.

This month, a person playing a guitar or piano in the corner of a pub may, for the first time, be breaking a law that has been introduced for reasons of "public order". If the health fundamentalists had their way, it would soon also be illegal to light up while listening. After that, inevitably, it would not only be music and tobacco that needed to be curtailed and controlled by legislation. Life is full of hidden dangers; more and more laws would be needed to protect us from it.

It was not, of course, simply good sense and moral balance that lay behind the Cabinet decision. Government advisers will have been aware that many of those in the outside world - smokers, non-smokers, trivial smokers - are stubbornly of the view that there should be a limit to this kind of legally enforced bossiness. Publicans know their customers, and when 20 per cent of them reveal that they would give up serving food rather than ban smoking, they are reflecting public opinion. Variety is important: some pubs are worth visiting for their food, others for the atmosphere of warmth, fun and companionship to which the lovely smell of tobacco contributes so fully.

In a world divided between referees and players, our lives have increasingly been dominated by the ever-bossy, ever-busy referees within the Government, who so seriously outnumber their player colleagues. To get a decent, enjoyable game out of life, we need some sort of balance between the two.