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Ten years of Taking Liberties

Monday was the tenth anniversary of this blog.

I was going to mention this mini milestone earlier in the week but I've been otherwise engaged.

I started the week in Glasgow, drove 400 miles to Cardiff, and after that the days got busier and busier so there's been no time to wallow in nostalgia.

I'll let you into a little secret, though. Back in January I was planning to publish a heavily edited version of this blog as a book and call it Taking Liberties: A Decade of Hell or similar.

I began the compilation process but after spending the best part of two days trawling through the first six months I gave up.

First and foremost, the narcissistic nature of the project began to dawn on me.

Also, while I was quite pleased with one or two posts, in the cold light of day I don't think enough of them stood the test of time.

A lot of posts were, how shall I say, of their time. Taken out of their immediate context, others didn't make any sense at all.

They only worked in relation to other posts. As soon as I started omitting posts the whole thing began to unravel because the narrative thread was lost.

Maintaining that narrative meant including far more posts than I wanted to and the final result would have been longer than War and Peace.

An edited version of Taking Liberties would have been a nice record – for me – of ten years' hard labour but I suspect it would be of little value to anyone else so I binned the idea in a file marked 'Vanity Project'.

I can't let the moment pass without some comment, though, so here goes.

The model for Taking Liberties was Iain Dale's Diary. I enjoyed Iain's fluent, easy-to-read style and became an avid reader.

What I particularly liked was the fact that he combined political commentary with posts about his personal life and observations about things that had little to do with either, including his taste in music (Cliff Richard and Roxette, since you ask).

I've tried, with far less success, to achieve a similar balance between work-related posts and other things that interest me because I didn't want this to become a single-issue 'Forest' blog.

Iain's post about the day of his civil partnership to his long-term partner John (Our Perfect Day) was particularly touching and uplifting.

It didn't change my mind about civil partnerships because I wasn't against them, but reading it put me firmly in the pro camp.

Iain had (and has) a lot of political contacts so he often got news and gossip first. No wonder then that Iain Dale's Diary competed with Guido Fawkes for the title of Britain's top political blog.

It couldn't last because at one stage Iain was posting several times a day and with all his other commitments it became too much.

Iain still blogs, under, but posts are intermittent and it's not the same.

I don't blame him. I've never achieved his level of output but even writing this blog puts a strain on me, time-wise.

I do it because I enjoy it and because I think I can justify it as time well spent, although it eats into a lot of my evenings and weekends.

It's certainly gratifying to know that even though the number of visitors is paltry compared to Iain Dale's Diary, and smaller than many libertarian blogs, Taking Liberties is monitored by tobacco control and others. That fact alone keeps me going.

Quality not quantity is how someone described the readership of Taking Liberties. I couldn't possibly comment but feedback suggests that if I write about a person or organisation it often gets back to them via one source or other.

If they don't comment here directly their reaction is soon fed back to me and it's often a joy.

Anyway, the last ten years have witnessed a remarkable programme of anti-smoking measures and this blog has covered the lot – the introduction of the smoking ban in Wales, followed by England and Northern Ireland; the ban on tobacco vending machines; the display ban; punitive taxation; the Tobacco Products Directive; and plain packaging.

Our campaign against standardised packaging was, I think, a good example of how blogs like this can play an important role in generating support and momentum.

Allied to our street petition, they helped drive opponents of plain packaging to an online petition with the result that over 250,000 people signed the Hands Off Our Packs petition and a further 53,000 people signed a letter to the prime minister.

In short, blogs have a vital role to play in active campaigning, as I hope is evident from Hand Off Our Packs: Diary of a Political Campaign, a selection of posts from this very blog that you can download here.

At the very least Taking Liberties, like Dick Puddlecote and Chris Snowdon's blogs, provide information and commentary that is rarely available in the mainstream media.

Together we act as a rallying point for those with similar views. Unfortunately we are so few in number now I can count them on the fingers of one hand.

Truth is, blogs such as this have probably passed their peak. When I began posting in 2007 it wasn't uncommon to attract 100+ comments in response to a single post.

On one occasion, when I drew attention to the role of Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams in the launch of the Plain Packs Protect campaign in January 2012 and invited readers of Taking Liberties to make their views known to him, over 1,400 comments were posted on Williams' blog.

I imagine the declining number of comments and visitors is due in part to the subject matter because people understandably grow weary of reading about the same thing over and over again.

Back in 2007 a lot of people were reacting to the imposition of the smoking ban. Subsequent measures (the display ban, for example) didn't resonate with consumers in the same way.

Reading those early posts it's noticeable that hardly anyone who was commenting then is doing so in 2017.

Instead there appears to be a hard core of commenters who have been following this blog for several years but are relative latecomers.

If Taking Liberties is still going in another five or ten years, and if I haven't killed myself first, it will be interesting to see how many of you are still here.

Btw, my first post about vaping (Wanted: comments on e-cigarettes) was in January 2010. It attracted 111 comments and a lot of heated debate.

A few months later I wrote another post on the subject (A touch of the vapers) where I commented:

What amazed me was the remarkably heated debate, bordering on open warfare, that the subject provoked.

There seem to be three distinct groups. On one side are smokers who regard e-cigs as an abomination designed to wean them off tobacco. If anyone so much as touches an e-cig they are accused of "selling out" and succumbing to the Devil.

One the other side are ex-smokers who have become evangelists for vaping and consider their former fellow smokers to be stupid or dinosaurs or both.

In the middle (and my sympathies lie firmly with this group) are those for whom e-cigs offer a useful alternative in places where smoking tobacco is prohibited.

Since then I've commented on vaping many times and I hope I've made my position clear. I support alternative nicotine products because I support tobacco harm reduction but, more important, I believe people should be allowed to make informed choices and if that choice is to smoke it should be respected and defended.

This blog will always defend smokers (and smoking) because I believe the issue is a litmus test for anyone who claims to have a liberal or libertarian outlook on life.

I know I've annoyed some people with what are perceived to be persistent digs at (some) vaping advocates and organisations, but there's nothing more nauseous than seeing evangelical ex-smokers getting into bed with tobacco controllers whose long-term goal is the eradication of recreational nicotine in all its forms.

Likewise I know I risk being seen as a dinosaur defending the indefensible (something I'm quite comfortable with actually) but I believe – passionately – in choice and personal responsibility and as long as there are people who wish to smoke I will support them. If that means fewer visitors to this blog, so be it.

One final comment – on moderation.

There's no doubt that by moderating comments a few years back I shot myself in the foot in terms of the number of people posting comments.

Blog-wise, however, it's the best thing I ever did.

I don't mind criticism, personal or otherwise, but I'm an old-fashioned sort of journalist and apart from keeping some real nutters at bay, moderation has enabled me to weed out the most verbose, repetitive or inarticulate comments.

I also take the view - rightly as it happens - that because bloggers are subject to the same laws of libel and defamation as anyone else the idea that people can post whatever they like regardless of the consequences is dangerous nonsense.

As a result some commenters have left in a huff and I say, "Good riddance!"

To those who are still here I say, "You're very welcome." But I won't change my policy on moderation because, for me, it works.

Talking Liberties was launched on March 26, 2007. The early years can be found here.

In January 2011 the site was redesigned and relocated to its present URL. There was a reason we couldn't transfer all the earlier stuff to the new platform but I've no idea what it was.

Another thing I can't remember is how I stumbled upon Squarespace, the blogging platform I use.

I do know I wanted something that was very easy for a technophobe like me to use, and Squarespace hasn't disappointed.

The company was founded by a college student in 2003 and is headquartered in New York. On the rare occasion I've had a problem the customer helpline has been friendly and prompt in its response.

By coincidence there have been a number of articles about Squarespace in the Irish media in the last few days owing to the fact that the company has opened a new, larger office in Dublin as it looks to expand globally.

The Forest websites are currently migrating towards WordPress (on the advice of the various website designers we use) but I have to say I find Squarespace easier and more intuitive.

Anyway, if you've followed this blog since the early days, a sincere thanks. If you're a relative newcomer you're no less welcome.

Here's a selection of posts (or the handful I can remember writing):

David Hockney: Brighton breezy (May 2007)
Revolt in style: match report (June 2007)
Smoke-free England? (June 2008)
Kerry McCarthy - an update (July 2008)
Things we want to do before we die (May 2009)
End of an era (June 2009)
Brighton 2005 - Forest's greatest hit? (September 2009)
George Miller-Kurakin - a celebration (January 2010)
Welcome to Bangalore (October 2010)
Cut public spending on tobacco control groups (October 2010)
GTNF 2012 – the highs and lows (June 2012)
Wanted: a consumer champion for e-cigarettes who is not anti-smoking (February 2013)
Your man in Havana: notes from a Caribbean island (March 2013)
Official: Forest underestimated success of Hands Off Our Packs campaign (July 2013)
Where is the empathy for smokers who don't want to quit? (January 2014)
My father's funeral (June 2014)
Welcome to the good ole USA! (October 2014)
How to get a standing ovation at a tobacco industry convention (January 2015)
Why I'm not attending today's E-Cigarette Summit (November 2015)
Are vapers in denial about tobacco control? (March 2016)

There may be better posts (I hope there are) but I don't have time to look and my memory is not what it was!

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Reader Comments (6)

I've just read a couple of the older posts and comments - a bit of a trip down memory lane. I wonder what's happened to "Martin V" whose comments I always enjoyed reading (perhaps he's just changed his username).

I comment only occasionally now - not a reflection of growing weariness or acceptance of the outrageous treatment of smokers since July 2007, just less and less time.

Thanks for the last ten years, Simon, and here's to the next.

Saturday, April 1, 2017 at 10:51 | Unregistered CommenterJay

I have heard from several notable bloggers in private that the age of thousands of hits daily and hundreds of comments, is coming to an end.

I assume it is a result, in larger part, of 'Social Media' and smartphones. Try writing a blog post or even commenting at length on a post on a smart phone and, if you're over 40, you'll end up throwing the infernal device against the wall...assuming you remember to take your reading glasses off before throwing otherwise you'll have trouble aiming.

144 Characters are, it seems, where it is at...and also increasingly seems to be the attention span of this Face Book Generation. Even my own kids, who grew up on BIBO, say something similar.

Anyways Simon, congrats on the 10 years and here's hoping for another ten. Your blog remains for me an unmissable daily part of the blogosphere.

Saturday, April 1, 2017 at 12:05 | Unregistered CommenterThe Blocked Dwarf

Daily reading for me as one who has been following this blog and commenting on it for almost all of that 10 years.

The Blocked Dwarf is right. I sometimes have to use the android pad and it drives me nuts, especially because it keeps changing the words I write.

In haste the blocked dwarf becomes the black Crawford, for example, and other irritating replacements occur for words this damn thing doesn't want me to write so it is easier to give up than comment.

There is of course also the feeling that commenting on blogs these days is like screeching in a 10 force gale with those you wish would listen often sticking their fingers in their ears and singing lalala.

I prefer blogs to newspapers these days. They have become mouthpieces for the antismoker industry and that hollow hand wringing about the ideals of equality and inclusion for everyone mean absolutely nothing to a media that refuses to see smokers as human beings.

Keep up the good work Simon. It often feels like we have no one else quite prepared to stand up for our choice to smoke while others are urging support to force us to alternatives including vaping.

Saturday, April 1, 2017 at 14:22 | Unregistered CommenterPat Nurse

Journalism has declined severely in quality. Newspapers seem to enjoy devaluing their product and employing young, poorly educated journalists. Hence their decline in circulations. However this blog is essential daily reading for me. Here i feel at home with like minded people. I hope for another ten years and for the anti libertarian likes of ASH and PHE to be laid to rest.

Saturday, April 1, 2017 at 16:24 | Unregistered CommenterTimothy Goodacre

Congratulations on the anniversary. May the next 10 years bring an end to the persecution of smokers and the return of choice!

Sunday, April 2, 2017 at 2:48 | Unregistered CommenterVinny Gracchus

Congratulations !! and please continue "taking liberties", we will join you reading and commenting !!

Sunday, April 2, 2017 at 9:50 | Unregistered CommenterRoberto

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