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Diary of a Political Campaign

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Thursday
Dec182014

Whale meet again

Looking forward to the Forest Christmas dinner in Cork tonight.

But first I've got to get there.

I'm currently in Dublin where I enjoyed a few pints last night with some agreeably smoker-friendly faces.

As I've mentioned before, a great many Dublin pubs go out of their way to make smokers as comfortable as possible.

The Ginger Man in Fenian Street, directly opposite my hotel, is effectively my local when I'm here:

The pub, all dark wood and polished picture-frames housing faded images, convulses with conversation and laughter around us. The harsh light from the toilet corridor meets the dimness of the rest of the pub exactly where we are, talking loudly and moving from side to side to facilitate the various movements of others.

The two more pleasant snug seating areas have long since been occupied, and a large table to our right is occupied by two men in their mid-twenties deep in discussion, one with a necktie around his forehead. To the front of the pub, a small, heated smoking area bustles with activity, patrons spilling out onto the footpath beyond.

Full review here.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny lives a few doors away and often drops in, late at night. Or so I'm told.

Anyway, further to my previous post, my evening went ahead as planned after I was stood down by Five Live and the BBC News Channel gave up looking for a studio where they could interview me about smoking in cars with children.

I was also edited out of the BBC Six O'Clock News report although, having seen it online, I can understand why.

Anyway, having been quoted by the Telegraph, Mail, Sun and other newspapers, I was pleasantly surprised to be interviewed this morning by the great James Whale who now presents the breakfast show on BBC Radio Essex.

James is feisty and fiercely anti-smoking but I like speaking to him because he lets you have your say, which is all you can ask.

Funnily enough he once told me on air that I am charming but I talk a load of rubbish. My response? Pot. Kettle. Black.

On another occasion he told me, "I do wish you'd find a better outlet for your talents."

Today I detected a softer tone. Either he's mellowed or the breakfast slot is less conducive to the more abrasive style for which he is known.

Either way I'm delighted he's still on air. I was disappointed when he left LBC. We can't afford to lose broadcasters of his experience and quality - a subject I will come back to when I have a moment.

See also: Whale of a time (Taking Liberties, December 2009)

Wednesday
Dec172014

Car smoke ban a gross intrusion on people's privacy

The BBC is reporting that a ban on smoking in cars with children will begin in October 2015.

The regulations laid before Parliament propose banning smoking in cars containing children under 18.

A fine of £50 will be issued to people who smoke or who fail to prevent another person smoking.

MPs will vote on the plans before the election - and if they are passed the change in law will come into force on 1 October.

See: Car smoke ban 'to start in October' (BBC News)

The BBC report includes a short quote from me. Forest's full response was:

The smokers' group Forest says regulations prohibiting smoking in cars with children are "unnecessary", "excessive" and a "gross intrusion on people's privacy".

Director Simon Clark said, "The government is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

"The overwhelming majority of smokers know smoking in a car with children is inconsiderate and they don't do it.

"The regulations are unnecessary and excessive. Do we really want to criminalise people for lighting a cigarette in a private vehicle?

"How is the law going to be enforced? The police have better things to do than look for drivers smoking on the off chance there's a child in the car.

"The next step will be a ban on smoking in all private vehicles followed by measures to prevent smoking in the home.

"It's a gross intrusion on people's privacy."

I'm in Dublin today but I'm scheduled to be on Five Live around 6.30 (if they can get me out of the pub).

Oh, and the BBC News Channel is trying to book a studio so they can also interview me. (This is seriously ruining my plans for the evening!)

Yesterday I gave a short interview to BBC News health editor Hugh Pym. If I survive the edit I'll be on the Six O'Clock and Ten O'Clock News.

Update: Kingdom FM in Fife has just taught me how to record and send a Voice Memo using my iPhone.

As a result I was able to record my reaction to the car smoke ban story and email it to them for immediate broadcast.

Apparently the sound quality is far superior to recording via landline or mobile.

Wednesday
Dec172014

More on smoking in cars with children

Currently at Stansted waiting for a flight to Dublin.

I may (or may not) be on the news later today talking about smoking in cars with children. I recorded an interview for the BBC yesterday in anticipation of some announcement today, but no-one seemed to know what it might be.

Scotland, of course, is pushing ahead with a ban. Yesterday Lib Dem MSP Jim Hume presented a Bill to the Scottish Parliament that has the support of the Scottish Labour party and probably the Scottish Government although the latter is waiting to complete its own consultation on the issue.

Hume insists it's all about "the children", giving them the healthiest start in life. Odd, then, that he retweeted a tweet by someone who supports a ban on smoking in all private vehicles, regardless of the presence of children.

Via Twitter Forest asked Hume whether he supports a total ban but, so far, he's ignored our question.

Yesterday I was on Morning Call (BBC Radio Scotland) discussing the issue for half an hour although my contribution amounted to no more than a few minutes.

Most of what I said is summed up by these comments I gave the Dundee Evening Telegraph, which described me as an "expert"!

"Legislation to ban smoking in cars with children is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

"Smokers don't need to be told how to behave. The overwhelming majority wouldn't dream of lighting a cigarette in a car if a child is present. Enough is enough."

"Criminalising it will have very little impact other than stigmatising smokers even more than they are already.

"The police must have better things to do with their time.

"This is yet another example of politicians interfering in people's lives for no good reason. It's gesture politics.

"The next step will be a ban on smoking in all private vehicles followed by a ban on smoking in the home."

But back to Morning Call. Also on the programme was John Watson of ASH Scotland which has been advising Hume on his Bill.

(How political is that? Further evidence of taxpayers' money being used by a 'charity' to lobby government. Shameless.)

In support of a ban John quoted research in which 25 per cent of children claim to be exposed to tobacco smoke in cars.

Needless to say this "evidence"is entirely anecdotal hence our belief that proper research should be carried out – similar to the UCD study in Dublin – to ascertain the facts not the fiction.

(UCD monitored over 2,200 cars in Dublin's rush hour and recorded only eight drivers smoking and just one child exposed to tobacco smoke in the car.)

Anyway, there was light relief in the form of this Twitter exchange:

Monday
Dec152014

Forget health, anti-smoking laws are about control

We've made the front page of the Scottish Daily Mail this morning.

Smoking in a car with a child as a passenger would be criminalised under tough new laws aimed at protecting youngsters' health.

A controversial bill, which would target the smoker rather than the driver, would carry a £100 fine and the possibility of court action.

The move has been backed by MSPs, charities and children's campaigners, but smokers' groups [ie Forest] warn it is "excessive" and "almost impossible to enforce".

On page 2 I'm quoted as follows:

"This is a taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. We don't condone people smoking in cars with children but these are private vehicles and we are concerned that the next logical step will be to try to ban smoking in homes as well.

"This will be excessive and almost impossible to enforce. If a car is going 30 or 40mph, police will not be able to say if there was a child in the car and I'm sure the police have better things to do."

Jackson Carlaw, health spokesman for the Scottish Tories', appears to share our view:

"We are reluctant to resort to legislation as we are concerned about not only enforceability but also the diversion of police resources."

Scottish Labour, however, support legislation and the SNP-led Scottish Government is "broadly sympathetic" to the Bill which is being put forward by Lib Dem MSP Jim Hume.

Significantly however the Mail reports that it is "waiting on the results of its own consultation which ends on January 2".

While the alleged impact of tobacco smoke on children may be driving Hume's initiative, his comments suggest a broader aim – the creation of a "tobacco-free Scotland".

"We have certainly made progress in the last few years to tackle smoking in Scotland, but it is still the biggest cause of preventable ill health in Scotland ...

"Second-hand smoke lingers and can affect others, particularly children, that's why I am championing a Bill to end smoking in cars when a child is present – an essential step if we are to create a tobacco-free Scotland for future generations."

If a "tobacco-free Scotland" is the aim it's clear legislation won't end with a ban on smoking in cars with children.

The next step, as we've always said, will be a ban on smoking in all private vehicles followed by bans in other private spaces including, eventually, the home.

Interestingly, figures published last week revealed a rise in the number of smokers in Scotland. "Scotland is losing the war on tobacco" reports the Mail, in a separate article.

According to the Scottish Household Survey 23.1 of adults were smoking in 2013, up from 22.9 in 2012. So much for "making progress".

Of course the knee-jerk reaction to failure is to push for more legislation, backed up by fines and other penalties, until it becomes physically impossible for an adult to smoke without breaking the law.

Forget health. This is about control.

Sunday
Dec142014

Thank You For Smoking: I spy a sequel

There was a long and mostly positive feature about e-cigarettes in yesterday's Guardian.

Sublimely written by Will Storr – a former smoker who took up vaping whilst researching his article – there were times however when it bordered on satire to the extent that I was reminded of Christopher Buckley's exquisite Thank You For Smoking.

Who knew, for example, that "The range of flavours has expanded to more than 8,000 and now includes roast beef, unicorn milk and vagina mist."

Or that exhaling vapour through your nose and the sides of the mouth is called "the dragon".

Or that vapers known as "cloud chasers" compete to see who can create the largest amount of vapour.

Adding to the fun were comments from Michael Clapper of e-cigarette company Vapestick who Storr described as "part boardroom, part boxer":

In the UK, you’re not allowed to do the dragon on most trains, buses or aeroplanes. Officially, at least. "It’s almost impossible to enforce," Vapestick’s Michael Clapper told me earlier. "I could be sat puffing away and, within 10 seconds, there’s no smell left to provide evidence of a crime." So you could vape in an aeroplane toilet? "I’d never suggest anything like that publicly. Certainly not in the Guardian."

Being the Guardian, of course, there had to be sting in the tail and having described, vividly and in some detail, what happened when coach driver John Walter's e-cigarette exploded (he and his family are now living in a Premier Inn), Storr concluded:

The morning after I hear Walters’ story, I wake to find the idea of having a few drags on a [zero nicotine] shisha presents itself immediately. I’m beginning to worry. It feels like an addiction. But how is that possible? I check the back of one of the 0% nicotine packets they gave me. It says, CONTAINS NICOTINE. In a panic, I email the company. "That should not be on there," comes the reply. I ask Michael Clapper if they are definitely free of the drug – "100%," he says.

"But I’m craving them," I say.

"It’s the throat hit, the visual cues, it’s the feeling of having something in your hand," he says.

"But I wake up and want a Vapestick," I say.

"No! Don’t put that in your article."

"You promise it’s zero?"

"Zero, zero, zero. Not even a trace. It has to be tested. We have laboratory reports."

The next day, I wake with an area of raw discomfort in my chest. My tongue feels as if it’s been scraped. I have a sore throat. Perhaps it’s the irritant properties in the stage smoke that Robert West mentioned. Perhaps it’s because I’ve chain-vaped while writing this article. As I tip a sachet of sweetener into my daily almond milk latte, it occurs to me I’ve discovered something new that, one day, I’m going to have to quit.

See what I mean about Thank You For Smoking?

If Buckley doesn't write a sequel Storr should. He's done the research and the title is obvious - Thank You For Vaping.

Nick Naylor is now an e-cig lobbyist and, well, I'll leave you to fill in the blanks.

But first, read Storr's article: E-cigarettes: is vaping any safer than old-fashioned smoke? (Guardian). Entertaining and informative.

Saturday
Dec132014

A small victory for common sense and decency

An NHS hospital in Devon this week reversed its plan to restrict routine operations for smokers and those who are obese.

The decision, reported two days ago, was made following widespread condemnation of the policy which was originally announced in October and for some reason made headlines again ten days ago.

Credit where credit's due, the most prominent opponent of the policy was deputy prime minister Nick Clegg who described the policy as "unacceptable" and said he disagreed with "rationing in that way".

Other politicians who spoke out included Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and Labour's Ben Bradshaw.

According to Pickles:

"The NHS is in our DNA. The idea that you would say 'You will not survive, you've had your chips, you're too fat, you smoke too much'. It's not the kind of Britain I recognise."

Ben Bradshaw [MP for Exeter] raised the plan in Prime Minister's Questions, claimed Communities Secretary Eric Pickles would have been barred from treatment because of his "size" and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg too because he smokes.

When the story broke (again) on December 3 I was invited to appear on Spotlight, the BBC's local evening news programme for the South West.

It was very short notice and I couldn't get to the studio in time but we issued this response:

"The NHS was built on the idea that it doesn't discriminate against people on the grounds of race, creed, colour or lifestyle.

"Not only does this discriminate against people because of their lifestyle, it discriminates against patients according to where they live. Local people will be at a huge disadvantage compared to patients in other regions.

"Smokers are entitled to treatment. They pay £12 billion a year in tobacco taxation alone. This is far more than it costs the NHS to treat smoking-related diseases.

"We would encourage smokers to take their doctor's advice about smoking in advance of an operation but if they choose not to that's a matter for them. Doctors are there to advise, not dictate how people live their lives."

I later caught the programme on iPlayer. We weren't quoted but the presenter gave the NHS representative a serious grilling so we had no complaints.

Thankfully others – including the deputy PM – shared our concerns and the policy has now been dropped.

A small victory, perhaps, but a welcome one nonetheless.

Saturday
Dec132014

Old friends and Christmas letters

I thought round robin Christmas letters were becoming a thing of the past.

Apparently not. Three arrived this morning. One – from "industrialist" Ken Tonkin – even mentioned me by name:

I met an old friend, Simon Clark, a few weeks ago and he kindly pointed out how boring he found the whole idea of Christmas letters and mine in particular so this one is dedicated to him.

Simon is the director of an organisation called Forest, the Voice and Friend of the Smoker, and organised a great party to celebrate Forest 35th anniversary. There were some delightfully right-wing people there and the whole evening was a great success.

Prior to the event at Boisdale I hadn't seen Ken for ten or 15 years. In the Eighties I saw him all the time and even shared a bed with him.

We met through a mutual friend, Richard Thoburn. Richard worked for a PR company just around the corner from me in London.

Richard was a member of the Federation of Conservative Students at Bradford (where he met Ken). Shortly after I arrived in London we were introduced by another old friend.

Several times a week we'd meet for a drink after work. Our 'regular' was the Old King Lud (now closed) on the corner of Ludgate Circus, a few minutes' walk from St Paul's Cathedral.

I remember drinking in the Old King Lud the day Mrs Thatcher announced that a huge task force was to sail 8000 miles to the Falkland Islands. The atmosphere that night was incredible. We were so pumped up it was the closest I've ever got to volunteering!

Later Richard and I shared a flat in West Kensington. That's when I really got to know Ken because he often stayed overnight after a long session in the pub.

We started renting cottages for boozy breaks in small rural villages. We'd invite half a dozen or so friends and together we'd squeeze into however many beds there were.

One year, in North Wales, Richard, who had first pick, chose a single bed leaving Ken and me to share the adjacent double bed, like Morecambe and Wise.

Most of the time, though, was spent in the nearest pub.

Ken had a prodigious appetite for pubs and beer but never seemed to put on weight. Perhaps it helped that he was, and still is, a smoker.

Outwardly relaxed and extremely laid-back, he nevertheless has a sharp and occasionally ruthless business brain. I've lost count of the number of companies he's bought or invested in – hence the "industrialist" tag.

Richard, I should add, has been no less successful, which is equally galling. Nevertheless, it was great to see both of them at Boisdale.

Now, about those letters. In 2012 the late Simon Hoggart had this to say: Bah humbug to the Christmas round robin (Daily Mail).

Friday
Dec122014

Question Time: now that's entertainment!

I remember when Question Time was essential viewing for anyone with the slightest interest in politics.

Invitations to sit in the audience were highly prized too.

The first time I took part was in 1984. The ASI's Madsen Pirie was on the panel and he was allowed to invite some 'supporters' to what I think was a church hall in South London where the programme was recorded.

Half a dozen of us turned up and every time Madsen opened his mouth we applauded as loudly as we could.

Later, when I watched the programme on TV, you could clearly hear us even though we were massively outnumbered by local Labour party activists.

In the Eighties there was hardly a week when I didn't recognise at least one face in the audience, often more.

On one occasion a member of the audience complained that people were far too quick to criticise. QT, he suggested, had become "a knocking shop".

Sharp as ever the late great Robin Day responded, "Whatever else Question Time is, it cannot be accused of being a knocking shop."

It got a big laugh and the member of the audience (grinning from ear to ear) was my old friend Gary Ling!

I haven't seen Madsen on the programme for years – probably because of his insistence on giving extremely succinct answers in stark contrast to the long-winded drivel that passes for political 'debate' today.

Sadly QT is a shadow of its former self and I rarely watch it. Last night however, for a few brief minutes, it was like the old days.

With one exception (The Times' Camilla Cavendish) the panellists were ordinary (Penny Mordaunt, Mary Creagh, Nigel Farage) or dire (Russell Brand), but for sheer entertainment the programme was unbeatable.

If you didn't see it I recommend this article – What happened when Nigel Farage and Russell Brand were on Question Time together? (New Statesman) – but there are many more online.

If you get a chance watch it on iPlayer. I can't remember the last time I laughed out loud during a TV programme, and certainly not Question Time.