According to Health Minister Lord Darzi, smoking should be banned in London’s outdoor areas, making it the most smoke-free city in the world. While he’s at it, he also wants to ban fast food outlets from opening within 400-metres of a school, to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol of 50p, to force restaurant chains to use traffic light nutrition labels on their menus, and to make businesses fund travel discounts for staff who walk a mile of their journey to and from work.
Suffice to say, if people agreed with the Health Minister’s blueprint for life, they’d already be following it, and wouldn’t need the government to hold their hands. Since they aren’t, Lord Darzi presumably thinks they are incapable of thinking for themselves. They are little more than hapless automatons, in thrall to Big Tobacco, Big Food and the rest of the supersized tyrannies.
It’s doubtful whether many people would describe themselves this way, so the chances are that Lord Darzi is describing a tiny number of Britons. All the same, we should be whipped en masse down the righteous path, because what’s good for the few should (apparently) be good for the many.
We’ve been here before, of course. In 2007, smoking was banned in public places, ostensibly to protect bar workers from the effects of second-hand smoke. The architects of the ban asked us to believe in the existence of people whose only prospect of work was in smoky bars. As the late Christopher Hitchens observed, it is unlikely that such people existed, and if they did, they certainly shouldn’t have formed the basis of government policy. But the legislation was passed and an ancient freedom was stubbed out in the ashtray of history.
This is leftism 101: identify a group that cannot stick up for itself, then regulate, tax and prohibit on its behalf, safe in the knowledge that your opponents will look like devils if they offer a squeak of protest. The chosen group can be as obscure or as fictional as you like, as long as it can be described as helpless. Kids are always a safe bet, but anyone who can be described as vulnerable will do the trick.
In the Left’s pre-Thatcher days, its favoured constituency was the working classes, but they fell out of favour when they started shifting for themselves. Since then, the Left has sought out new groups to champion, with diminishing returns. Once the latest victim has been saved, another must be drawn from the ever-shrinking pool, with each specimen looking less credible than the last.
No wonder the last Labour government was so keen on immigration. It needed freshly-minted voters, ready to take the King’s shilling and become bureaucratic playthings. It wanted a new people to rescue at the expense of all those uppity proles and suburban strivers whose self-reliance threatened the Left’s influence. Mass immigration was not designed to control a labour shortage; it was meant to remedy a shortage of Labour control.
Global warming, health panics, inequality hysteria: they all fulfil the same purpose. They purport to show us that, left to our own devices, we mess things up. They prove that the social arrangements which naturally occur in free societies, and from which leftists feel excluded, are a mistake. They demonstrate the need for a liberal aristocracy, with a vast state apparatus at its disposal, to save us from ourselves.
During boom times, the public is more liable to put up with this nonsense. With the problem of making ends meet seemingly taken care of, people tolerate a little state-sponsored do-goodery. They let the concerned politicians, alarmed boffins and earnest activists get their way, because it’s only fair to toss them a bone when everyone else has it so good. And anyway, it feels nice to parrot their concerns, because it offers a sense of being part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
When the boom is revealed as a bust, however, folk begin to contemplate what they’ve lost, and wonder whether solving the ‘issues’ identified by Big Government is worth the sacrifice. It is one thing to create a level playing field; it is another to turn society on its head, so the silent majority is put at the mercy of fringe causes, minority groups and their supporters.
People’s anger at an out-of-touch political class is not an appeal for more government aid, as some commentators imagine; it’s a sign that their values are out of kilter with the ruling elite’s. They’re tired of being called small-minded for not supporting the contents of the progressive wish-list. They didn’t vote for these things, so they wonder why they live with them all the same.
Who, for instance, is multiculturalism supposed to benefit? Immigrants to this country, perhaps (although I’d argue not); but, if so, why should their interests trump those of the existing population? Why should those who benefit least from our bloated state contribute most towards it? Are the needs of those it exists to serve really so dire that it justifies the deprivations forced on everyone else? Is their plight actually prolonged and exacerbated by the institutions created to alleviate it? Who made it scandalous to ask such questions? How did political correctness come to dominate our codes of thought and speech?
One thing’s for sure, none of this happened by popular consent. No government put to the vote the levels of public spending, micro-regulation and cultural vandalism we live with today. We are where we are because politicians and opinion-formers fostered a culture forged in the aftermath of the Cold War, when our guard was down, and our freedom and prosperity became taken for granted.
Culture and government enjoy a dialectical relationship. The culture won’t change as long as the government endorses it, and the government won’t change unless the culture demands it. The institutions that oversee both are controlled by a progressive elite consumed by utopian visions and its own self-importance. Unless the electorate opts for radical change, we will be stuck with them forever.
Yet, there is a glimmer of hope. The vitriol poured on UKIP by mainstream politicians and their media courtiers tells us that they see Nigel Farage’s party as a threat to their little game. UKIP has won enough support to suggest that people are growing tired of a zeitgeist that encourages them to abandon their own interests, and swap their values for those of the ruling elites and their mascots. Like them or loathe them, UKIP have opened up the debate. Finally, it is being asked whether we can live our own lives on our own terms, without having to huddle around the same ghastly consensus.