So, was the Rally Against Debt a success?

A mixed response, as you would expect, to yesterday's Rally Against Debt.

According to one blogger:

The left said they couldn’t organise a piss up in a posh wine bar. They were right. Today’s Rally Against The Cuts gig was a wash out.

300 was the honest estimate, despite Guido Fawkes’ talk of 500. Toby Young decided on taking his children to see some pirates and I’m sure many on the “rally” would now see sense in his decision.

Another wrote:

The ‘Rally against Debt’, which was launched with a fanfare as the response of the ‘silent majority’ to the TUC demonstration of over 500,000, was a pathetic event.

Those who were actually there saw it rather differently. James Worron, for whom Saturday was his first ever demonstration, wrote:

I arrived and the crowd was indeed a little small, but there was a good vibe, and some people I knew. I probably wasn’t the only one there who hadn’t been on a demo before. There was a vague uncertainty about what to do. We didn’t march anywhere, and attempts to start chanting got nowhere.

Still the crowd was eclectic and lively. Harry Cole put a Chihuahua in his jacket. A girl’s placard asked George [Osborne] for “more, faster, deeper,” someone else had a “Hayek is my homeboy” t-shirt. It was also good natured, two left-wing counter-protestors trying to get a “Libraries Suck” counter-placard in the photo were seen off with good humour all round.

Simon Richards, director of The Freedom Association, wrote:

"Yesterday's Rally Against Debt was just one small, early, but significant sign that even the excessive patience of the silent majority is, at long last, starting to run out."

As someone who was also there, I thought it was a pretty decent effort. There were more than enough people (and press photographers) to make you feel you were part of an 'event'.

I counted eight speakers. Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs and Matthew Sinclair of the TaxPayers' Alliance provided the necessary gravitas, but documentary film maker Martin Durkin was perhaps the pick of the bunch. His speech rivalled Nigel Farage's for laughs and his enthusiasm was equally infectious.

Compared to the TUC's Alternative March the turnout may have been small, but what did people expect? Unlike the union-sponsored event, Rally Against Debt didn't have a penny to its name when the idea was promoted on Facebook a few weeks ago. Bar some logistical support from the TaxPayers' Alliance, I don't think much changed, financially, ahead of yesterday's event.

Media-wise, however, Rally Against Debt was a success, punching well above its weight. "Is that a protest or a bus queue?" sneered one left-wing blogger, but online you will find a string of reports – in the Guardian, Telegraph and Daily Mail. BBC News features a report and even a video. You can't buy that sort of coverage (and I should know!).

Compare the coverage of Saturday's rally with a similar event organised by the I Want A Referendum campaign in 2008. Publicised over many months and executed brilliantly on the day, the I Want A Referendum lobby of parliament attracted almost 3,000 people to Westminster but was largely ignored by the mainstream media.

Check the reports of yesterday's rally and you'll see a wall of banners, most of them homemade. Images are often more important than words and the message is clear – this was a genuine grassroots event featuring people of all ages.

Some media commentators have tried to portray Rally Against Debt as a bunch of toffs but that wasn't my experience. True, it was a very Middle England sort of crowd, but does that make us toffs? Only the left could portray Britain's national debt crisis as a class war.

Rally Against Debt started on Facebook and, it could be argued, would not have happened without it. As a campaign tool, however, it's a mixed blessing.

It is frustrating, for example, when 1,900 people indicate that they will attend an event like this and only a fraction of them bother to do so. It confirms, to me at least, that Facebook is an additional campaign tool, but one that flatters to deceive.

Anyway, those of us who made the effort to attend the first Rally Against Debt enjoyed a good-humoured protest that didn't overstay its welcome. Some critics have highlighted the fact that we drifted away before the end of our allotted time but the blessedly short speeches had finished so what were we supposed to do? Chant inane slogans? Riot?

We convened, we made our point, and then we made a beeline for the pub. Isn't that what normal people do? (Personally I would have liked to march en masse to Fortnum & Mason for afternoon tea but the great food emporium may have feared the worst had we all arrived together.)

Yesterday's event won't change the world but if you support the sentiments behind Rally Against Debt it was far, far better than sitting on your backside at home. Congratulations to everyone involved.

See also: We rallied against the debt (Guido Fawkes)
We rallied against debt (TaxPayers Alliance)
Rally Against Debt - what impact will it have? (Platform 10)

H/T Photo courtesy Simon Richards (The Freedom Association)

Update: Thanks for coming (Rally Against Debt)
That Rally Against Debt (Devil's Kitchen)


Review of the week


Now WHO turns on drivers

Driving to Liverpool today, then back to Cambridgeshire via Manchester, a round trip of approximately 350 miles.

Yesterday the Telegraph reported that "Speeding motorists fines are set to rise by up to 40 per cent under plans being considered by ministers".

The Department for Transport is ready to raise the fixed penalty for motorists caught breaking the limit from £60, the level set in 2000, to as high as £100.

Similar increases are planned for other offences such as using a hand held mobile phone while driving and failing to wear a seat belt.

Other penalties are also set to soar under the road safety strategy announced by Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary.

I wouldn't mind if there was a bit of give and take - variable speed limits, for example, that go up as well as down.

This is well-worn argument but motorway speed limits were set in the 1960s when the average family saloon could barely do 70mph.

Fines and penalty points should be given for reckless or dangerous driving, and that is often dependent on road conditions (heavy traffic, bad weather etc).

There is nothing reckless or dangerous about travelling at 100mph in good conditions on a clear motorway.

Yesterday, the Today programme interviewed a spokesman for an organisation called Road Peace, "A national charity for road crash victims".

I have every sympathy for anyone who has lost someone in a car accident, but I took a dislike to the slick, almost messianic Road Peace spokesman.

I was half asleep, I admit, but I heard several references to 3,000 deaths on the road every day.

This is a global figure of course that is largely irrelevant when discussing road crash victims in Britain or indeed Western Europe where roads are, by and large, in a reasonable condition, and driving standards are relatively high.

I did a little investigation and it won't surprise you to learn that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has just launched a 'Decade of Action for Road Safety’ campaign "to raise awareness of dangers on the road".

Across the world each year, nearly 1.3 million people die as a result of a road traffic collision – that’s more than 3,000 deaths each day.

According to the WHO, unless immediate and effective action is taken, road traffic injuries are predicted to become the fifth leading cause of death in the world.

I'll come back to this issue later. In the meantime, I've got a meeting to go to, and it's a three-hour drive to get there.

Must dash.


Are you going to rally against debt?

Don't forget the Rally Against Debt in London on Saturday.

Goodness knows how many people are going to be there, but it's the principle and the message that matters.

The rally is a static event (no marching, thank God!) in Old Palace Yard, between Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. Organisers say it will start at 11.00am and finish at 2.00pm.

Guest speakers include Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes), Mark Littlewood, director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Matthew Sinclair, director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, and Martin Durkin, documentary film maker and activist.

Here are some of the people who have blogged in support and will, I assume, be taking part:

Andy Mayer (Liberal Vision), Old Holborn, Devil's Kitchen, A Very British Dude, plus Dan Hannan, Ed West, and Toby Young (all Telegraph Blogs).

See also my contribution, Why I'm supporting the rally against debt.

According to Facebook, almost 2,000 people have indicated that they will attend. More details on the Rally Against Debt website.

Looking forward to it.


Government should protect us from the vested interests of tobacco control

Interesting if not unexpected response from the Department of Health to a question by Conservative MP Philip Davies.

Davies asked the Secretary of State for Health "if he will make it his policy to require that organisations which engage with his Department on tobacco control issues disclose whether they are linked to or receive funding from (a) the pharmaceutical industry and (b) the public purse".

In response, public health minister Anne Milton replied:

The Government are under obligation to protect [my emphasis] tobacco control from the vested interests of the tobacco industry, under The World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Our policy on this is set out in Chapter 10 of 'Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A Tobacco Control Plan for England'. This does not extend beyond the tobacco industry and the Department, as with all other policy areas, engages with a wide range of stakeholders including the pharmaceutical industry, organisations in receipt of funding from the pharmaceutical industry and organisations in receipt of funding from the public purse.

In other words, the Government is admitting, without embarrassment, that it consults with groups that receive funding from the pharmaceutical industry – a "vested interest" if ever there was one – and the public purse (which takes us back to our Government Lobbying Government report).

It won't surprise you to learn that the "wide range of stakeholders" the Department of Health "engages with" doesn't include the tobacco industry or consumer groups like Forest.

In the words of one observer, "It seems that Milton is openly acknowledging that DoH is lobbied by organisations funded by DoH, and they are happy to speak with some ‘vested interest’ groups but not others.

Nothing new there, but what a way to run a country. Worse than MPs expenses, in my view.

As for the Government's "obligation to protect tobacco control from the vested interests of the tobacco industry", doesn't the Government have an obligation to protect consumers from the vested interests of the pharmaceutical industry?

There's a campaign in there somewhere.


Ireland's shame

Postscript to the previous post.

As well as sending press releases to the Irish media, Forest Eireann has been emailing a handful of Irish bloggers in an effort to generate some discussion of smoking online.

No joy. With the honourable exception of Grandad, whose brilliant Head Rambles blog is essential reading, we haven't found a single libertarian or smoker-friendly blog in the whole of Ireland. Not one.

Not even Twenty Major, a blog that is sub-titled, quite erroneously, 'Still smoking in Dublin bars'. Last year, reacting to a press release from Forest Eireann the author sniffed:

Like a few others I’ve just been spammed by a group called Forest Eireann. Their aim is to ‘Campaign against the denormalisation of smoking and the vilification of smokers by the tobacco control lobby’.

They have a spokesman called John Mallon from Cork. He says:

"I’m no radical but I believe in the citizen’s right to oppose those things that seek to marginalise them. The outcome of the smoking ban, now in its sixth year in Ireland, suggests that it has been counter-productive. Smoking rates have increased while one pub a day closes due to the effects of the ban."

Really? It’s the smoking ban that’s forcing pubs to close? Here was I thinking it was the fact that drinking in pubs is now ridiculously expensive. We’re fleeced for beers, spirits, soft drinks, the whole lot.

Regulations mean pubs can’t have ‘happy hours’ to bring in customers and very few pubs are doing anything to attract customers, like, you know, lowering the price of drink, which is why people go to pubs. Not to smoke.

I don't doubt that the price of drinks, and drink driving laws, have had a significant effect on Ireland's pubs. But let's get this straight. A blogger called Twenty Major, whose blog features the legend 'Still smoking in Dublin bars', claims that people go to pubs only to drink. Not to smoke.

Another Irish blogger, responding to our study which showed a clear correlation between the smoking ban and a rapid increase in pub closures in Ireland, complained that since the ban "smokers monopolise the outside tables at licensed premises, leaving us to having to stay inside on the nicest of summer days or put up with breathing in their noxious fumes".

Yesterday Forest Eireann received the most po-faced response from another blogger who claims to be a "political junkie" yet clearly has no interest in one of the most important political and cultural issues of our time.

Replying to our press release about the loss of 7,000 workers in the pub/drinks industry in Ireland in 2010, he wrote:

To whom it may concern,

Please remove me from your email list. I have not signed up for it and you do not advertise on the list a way of removing one's self from the email list which is a breach of the data protection act.

I love visiting Ireland, on business and on holiday. But can someone tell me why there is so little interest in defending, ahem, individual liberty or promoting the free market?

I can find no evidence of a single free market think tank. Nothing, certainly, on a par with the Adam Smith Institute or the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain.

The Freedom Institute, a free-market classical-liberal think tank was founded in Ireland in 2003, but four years later it folded and its founder fled to England.

The Progressive Democrats, a liberal, free-market political party founded in 1985, was disbanded in 2009.

Ireland, it seems, is a graveyard for social and economic liberals. Why that is I have no idea, but it does explain the absence of any serious opposition to the smoking ban and the subsequent tobacco display ban.

PS. Having written this post I visited Twenty Major to see what he was writing about today. (Not smoking, obviously.) His last and, it appears, final post was on April 4 and the headline is 'Game over'.

For Twenty Major, perhaps, but not for us.


Government must intervene to save Irish pubs, says Forest Eireann

New figures released by the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland show that 7,000 jobs were lost in the pub trade in 2010 alone.

“It is ironic to think that a smoking ban ostensibly introduced to protect the health of bar staff should be contributing to their loss of employment,” said John Mallon of the smokers' group Forest Eireann.

Full response here.

PS. Did we really say "Government must intervene". Er, yes, but only in the sense that the Government should not have intervened in the first place. In this instance 'intervention' means relaxing the regulations ...


ASH Scotland: the bully state in action

The following was posted in the comments on the previous thread.

I removed it because it was off topic but I don't want my anonymous correspondent (or anyone else) to think that I want to hide the story.

Far from it. I intend to do everything I can to expose ASH Scotland for what they are - state-sponsored bullies who are happy to organise a conference about alcohol and tobacco without inviting representatives of either the drinks or tobacco industries, but are quick to complain and cast aspersions when a section of the hospitality industry has the initiative to organise a small event of its own to discuss the impact of the smoking ban.

Anyway, this is what ASH Scotland posted on their website earlier today:

Last week, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association publicised an event to discuss proposed retrograde moves for Scottish pubs, including reintroducing smoking areas, and using ventilation to tackle second-hand tobacco smoke. Unsurprisingly given these backwards looking, expensive and unworkable proposals, the event is part funded by the Tobacco Manufacturers Association; an organisation of just three member [sic], British American Tobacco, Gallaher Ltd (a member of Japan Tobacco), and Imperial Tobacco. It is also being organised by Oliver Griffiths who was involved in promoting the tobacco industry’s AIR (Atmosphere Improves Results) campaign. AIR targeted retailers, presenting the discredited and expensive solution of ventilation as an alternative to the smoking ban

Full article here.

My informant (who goes by the name of, er, 'Informant') commented, a little unfairly I thought, "ASH Scotland on the attack but the SLTA remain silent".

Truth is, the SLTA were probably unaware, until a short time ago, that ASH Scotland had even issued this statement.

Far from "publicising" their event, the SLTA had kept it low-key. To the best of my knowledge, invitations were issued only last week and only to a handful of interested parties. No fanfare, no press release, nothing.

This is a small private event, not a political rally, and if the SLTA need a helping hand to pay for it, who can blame them? Thanks in part to the smoking ban, neither the SLTA nor their members have a pot to piss in.

Under attack from a bully state that is now rampant north of the border, Scotland's pubs are defenceless. They need all the help they can get.

Anyway, I really didn't expect to be commenting on this but if ASH Scotland want a fight, bring it on.