I always know something isn’t right when I find myself agreeing with Peter Hitchens. He was speaking as the sole contrarian on the panel at the launch of a pamphlet Civil Liberties: Up In Smoke. This was the first in a series of debates Voices of Freedom organised by The Free Society at the Institute of Economic Affairs. While I am as opposed to the smoking ban as Hitchens is opposed to people smoking (and much else besides), I couldn’t help agree that the anti-ban lobby tend toward ‘self-dramatisation’. They seem to think, he argued, that they are making a ‘bold stand against something or other’. But smoking is not a ‘moral choice’ or a matter for ‘profound conviction’.
While writer Sir Ronald Harwood was admirable in his unashamed defence of his lifestyle choice – ‘I love smoking’ he said, ‘I enjoy every puff I’ve ever taken’ – his co-speakers worried me. They too readily identified themselves with a persecuted minority. Simon Davies of Privacy International, and author of said pamphlet, spoke of the ‘victimisation’ and ‘discrimination’ that smokers face. Chris Snowdon, author of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, complained that they should be protected but instead it is ‘government instigating the bullying’. Thankfully, Daniel Hamilton of Big Brother Watch, perhaps conscious of the dangers of infantilising smokers, argued that ‘adults have a right to act as they wish’. They should resist efforts to ‘drive smoking off the face of the earth’.
Indeed they should. But they’ll first need to get to grips with the fact that arguments about personal liberty are being turned on their heads. Today, it is not freedom’s defenders, but those who oppose people living their lives as they choose, who wield the harm principle. J S Mill’s notion that the only brake on one’s liberty should be the harm done to somebody else no longer does the job. In our anxious times where anything and everything is deemed a risk, and we are all potentially vulnerable, harm – we are told – is all around us. Instead of challenging this view or simply defending their right to do as they please, anti-ban campaigners are entering into a dangerous game of competitive victimhood that they simply can’t win.