Leading Article: Blair's Roundheads are too cavalier with the bans

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The Independent Online
The new government is exhibiting distinct Roundhead tendencies. If Tony ("call me Oliver") Blair has long had Cromwellian leanings in the way he runs the Labour Party, it is only recently that Home Secretary Jack Straw has been trying on Colonel Fairfax's uniform.

During the past few days Labour's New Model Army has been proposing to kill various joys and severely restrict others. After alcopops, the weed: the Government's instinct is to reach for legislative prohibition. Yesterday the Health Secretary, Frank Dobson, said that as well as banning tobacco advertising, the Government intends to proscribe sponsorship by cigarette companies.

The alcohol and tobacco industries are not backward in coming forward and they will shout long and exaggeratedly. But they must not try to play the "socialist" card. Labour's leaders are nothing if not adepts of Thatcherism. One of the ingredients of that strong brew, and the weaker potion stirred by John Major, was a willingness to throw the statute book at "problems". Thatcherism was authoritarian. It wantonly extended police powers and added chapters to the criminal code. The Tories were all for banning: dogs, raves, travellers, football fans, homosexuals. From the Dangerous Dogs Act to Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1987 we have examples of government by fiat; however badly drafted and ultimately unworkable the statutes, the intention was to throw the weight of the state into stopping behaviour.

Labour may repeal some of these Tory statutes, and will burnish its liberal credentials if it does. But its instincts already appear worryingly similar: instead of persuasion, legislative nannying; instead of fiscal incentives, blanket bans. Take alcopops. It is the case that alcohol is a noxious drug. It is a factor in household accidents and abuse, in death and mayhem on the roads, violence among the young, and disease and deterioration among the old. It is also an essential lubricant of our kind of society and - this is the clincher - the point at which individuals must be allowed to choose to go to heaven or hell in their own way, and choose, too, whether to bring up their children well or badly. Children who are badly supervised, who live outside the bonds of family trust, will find ways to drink, smoke and otherwise misbehave. That the drinks industry has a product engineered to look and taste like carbonated sweet drinks does nothing, in itself, to predispose teenagers to defy their parents or abandon their own sense of right. We have reason to worry about standards of parenting and the quality of supervision of young people but that ought not to justify proscribing a commercial product which is otherwise entirely legal.

Similar arguments apply to tobacco. There is something dishonest about making conduct associated with cigarettes (such as advertising or sponsoring racing cars) illegal but refusing to contemplate proscribing the action itself. Smoking affects other people in enclosed spaces; no one should be forced to smoke passively. These precepts justify banning smoking in planes and (sections of) restaurants. But preventing Embassy sponsoring snooker or Benson and Hedges sponsoring golf feels like an intrusion on everyone. The tobacco companies may have quite cynically bought their way into public affection by their heavy investment in sports, but there it is: cigarette money contributes mightily to the diversity of sport, to widening fields of attainment and so to the greater pleasure of the participating and watching public. That fact has also to be weighed in the balance.

To argue this way is of course not to condone an activity with such harmful individual effects and substantial social costs. But what the state should be doing is sharpening the individual calculus: for example, wondering whether the time has now come for the NHS to charge smokers, downgrading its work on lung cancer (insofar as it is self-induced), and visiting on individuals and their relatives the consequences of their behaviour.

Government operates inside a balance of liberties and proscriptions. Tony Blair is in tune with public opinion and right in principle to move swiftly to ban entirely the private ownership of hand guns. On good Millite principles, weapons should be strictly controlled: their purpose is to inflict harm, potentially on other people, and any sporting activity is not only still possible, but anyway incidental. What New Labour needs to do is work case by case. Blairites should be careful of reaching for the parliamentary draftsman every time.

These next few months are going to offer plenty of other occasions when the case for state intervention will need the most thorough examination and debate. Take the export of live calves. Again, a range of considerations applies, from the commercial advantage of British farmers to the enjoyment of Italian consumers. In a civilised country - a consideration independent of debate about how far animals are sentient - animals ought to be treated in a civilised way. A key question becomes whether it is possible to transport live calves by truck humanely and still make the trade viable. It is for government to specify standards and for the state to insist that animals are well treated. But, respecting the diversity of public views, government must strive to avoid blanket bans.

Before long another vexed animal issue will show New Labour in its true colours: the future of fox hunting. Labour MPs should reflect. Demonstrating vociferously against hunting, persuading landowners to refuse permission for their land to be hunted over, and execrating the cult of ritual slaughter are legitimate tactics for opponents to use. But they stop well short of using the power of the state to ban the activity. That would be oppressive. New Labour Cromwellians should remember with what enthusiasm the Cavalier king was welcomed back. Puritanism is only ever one swing of a long pendulum.