Dave Isaacson examines the recent furore over a mooted smoking ban in Stony Stratford and finds that freedom can have many meanings
The historic market town of Stony Stratford, on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, has twice made its way into the national media this year. First for the enthusiastic and creative opposition of many people in the town to the plans of Milton Keynes council to close its library as part of a raft of cuts in the area. The campaign won the library a stay of execution at the last council budget, though its future remains in doubt. The council is currently running a libraries consultation exercise which aims to find ways of “making savings and efficiencies”.
Now, Stony Stratford has found itself in the national media for a rather different reason. The town has now found itself the stage for a battle over the right of people to smoke on its streets. Stony Stratford town councillor, Paul Bartlett, had launched a campaign to completely ban smoking from the streets of Stony Stratford. He formulated three proposals to the town council:
i) Stony Stratford Town Council does not condone smoking and the health risks associated with it. This Council seeks to reduce the amount of litter in our streets and to protect our historic town from germs, general nuisance and the possibility of young people in particular being burnt by cigarettes.
ii) Stony Stratford Town Council wishes to encourage all businesses in the town and, in doing so, to recognize the leading role they and residents can play in preventing the spread of disease, injury, litter, smoke, illnesses such as asthma, lung cancer and the narrowing of arteries, heart disease and its unpleasant other side effects and including the impact discarded cigarettes have on residents of Market Sq and High St in particular and children who have to put up with this 24hrs a day.
iii) Stony Stratford Town Council seeks the implementation of a full street smoking ban within the Town Council area of Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes.
Whilst it is incontrovertible that smoking a major health hazard and a serious cause of illness, I have not seen any evidence to suggest that the amount of smoke inhaled on an average walk along a high street causes any cause for concern. Communists have no truck with Bartlett’s petty authoritarian calls for a ban on smoking. They are utterly misguided, unworkable, and reliant on an entirely reactionary upping of the level of state interference and repression in peoples’ lives. We therefore think that it is a good thing that when the first two of councillor Bartlett’s proposals were put to a town council meeting on July 19 that they fell at the first hurdle with no other councillor being prepared to second them. The third, and most straightforward, proposal is due to be put before a town council meeting on September 20th. I fully expect it to meet a similar fate.
One does have to wonder why, given the near total absence of any sign of support for Bartlett’s proposed ban, this issue was taken up so eagerly by national media outlets. The Telegraph headed its article on the matter, “Stony Stratford set to ban smoking in all public spaces.”i Well, not quite. As it turned out this was all smoke and no fire. Crusading for the freedom to smoke, and other such liberties which large sections of capital have money invested in, is an easy thing for the right wing media to do. They can give themselves a campaigning edge and puff themselves up with populist demagoguery as they pose as the defenders of the ordinary man or woman on the street against the ravages of faceless bureaucratic power. Yet their main interest is not in freedom for its own sake, but freedom for them and their class (the ruling class) to carry on running the show and exploiting the rest of us. Along with that goes the freedom for capitalist corporations to sell cigarettes and for those that buy them to puff away without restraint. Not to mention their freedom to hack into phones, the freedom for the capitalist class to create a media monopoly where only papers funded by their advertising can survive, and the freedom to make a mockery of the truth, day in, day out.
Public opposition within Stony Stratford was most prominent from a motley alliance of right wing politicians, local businesses and so-called libertarians. On Saturday July 16th they held a rally in the Vaults bar in the Bull hotel to protest against Bartlett’s plans. On the speakers platform were Bill Etheridge (Midlands representative for The Freedom Association), David Odell (local retailer and Chairman of the Stony Stratford Business Association), Patrick Hayes (journalist at the Institute of Ideas and Spiked), Nigel Farage (leader of UK Independence Party), and Roger Helmer (Conservative MEP for East Midlands).
We all know about the political parties represented there. UKIP, the right wing populist, anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic party was described by its once prominent ‘thinker’, Aidan Rankin, as the “brownshirt-in-blazers tendency.”ii UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, has twice visited Stony Stratford recently to make hay out of this smoking ban issue, no doubt hoping to win his party some votes come the next election. However UKIP are but a shadow of the Conservatives – the true home of reactionaries in Britain. We all know their record as the “nasty party” who have systematically gone about battering the working class and it’s trade unions whenever they have been in office. Great defenders of freedom they certainly are not. Even by Tory standards, Roger Helmer MEP, who spoke at the rally in Stony must be placed on the right.
Helmer sits on the national council of The Freedom Association, who were also represented by Bill Etheridge in the Vaults bar of the Bull hotel. So who are The Freedom Association? It was set up in 1975 by group of businessmen, aristocrats, military figures, journalists and politicians on the far right at the initiative of Viscount De L’Isle. It launched itself into a determined fight against trade unionism providing financial support to employers taking legal action and through directing scabbing operations.iii This was most notorious in their strikebreaking Operation Pony Express during the Grunwick dispute. The political positions they pushed were fundamental to the anti-union laws that Thatcher would later introduce. Another prominent campaign priority of The Freedom Association was their support for the racist apartheid regime in South Africa.iv
The Freedom Association’s idea of ‘freedom’ is simply the freedom to exploit the working class without let or hindrance. This conception of ‘freedom’ led the association to support the Pinochet coup in Chile. Leading figure Brian Crozier was also one of those involved in shadowy, and thankfully unsuccessful, plotting to bring about something similar in mid-1970s Britain.
The other group represented on the platform in the Vaults bar that may not be familiar to everyone was the Institute for Ideas/Spiked, for whom Patrick Hayes spoke. These groups – would you believe it? – have their roots in Frank Ferudi’s Revolutionary Communist Party (itself a split from today’s Socialist Workers Party). The RCP that saw themselves chased out of pit villages during the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-5 for their attempts to lecture strikers throughout the strike on their supposed failure to hold a ballot. So yes, the group always had strange priorities, but now we find them cosily sharing a platform with these out and out enemies of the working class in order to oppose a smoking ban which had no hope of becoming real. Not only that, but, from what can be gleaned from the Youtube video and other reports of the rally, they felt no need to raise any criticisms of the other forces represented or set themselves apart in any way.v How sad, but predictable.
For us in the Communist Party of Great Britain, the defence (and extension) of democratic rights is of vital importance, but we fight for these rights as communists. When we enter into tactical alliances with forces with whom we have political differences we do not seek to conceal these differences. Rather, we argue for our political positions and seek to win people to the communist programme.
iii) The Daily Telegraph September 13 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/politics-obituaries/8000573/John-Gouriet.html.
iv) The Guardian June 14 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2010/jun/14/north-korea-world-cup-2010. “the Freedom Association, the charmless libertarian pressure group whose policies included mounting legal challenges against peace campaigners and allowing 1980s cricketers “freedom to trade” in apartheid South Africa.”