Libertarians, drugs and drink

I have returned from the Freedom Forum in Birmingham.

This is a new initiative for students and young undergraduates. There were around 100 delegates at the conference which took place in the bowels of the Birmingham & Midland Institute in a quiet street very close to the city centre. (Delegates were staying in a hostel around the corner.)

In terms of speakers all the usual suspects were there – many took part in our Voices of Freedom series of debates last year – but in my session, alongside Simon Richards, director of The Freedom Association, and Mark Wallace, former campaign director of the TaxPayers' Alliance, we also had Graham Aitken representing Students for Sensible Drug Policy UK which wants to legalise all drugs.

Afterwards we had a chat. Graham was wearing a casual but smart jacket and he told me he wears it so people don't leap to the conclusion that he's a junkie himself.

Personally, I've always struggled with the issue of hard drugs. Well, when I say struggled, I would never condemn anyone who consumes any substance, whatever it is (it's their body, after all) but would I support the legalisation of all drugs? I'm not sure. For me, the arguments for and against balance themselves out and I find it hard to decide. Most of the time I just don't think about it.

Dinner took place at Bank Restaurant in Brindley Place and the guest speaker was Mark Littlewood, director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Dressed in a leather jacket and this season's Southampton football shirt (think Peru rather than Sheffield United or Stoke City), Mark gave a polished yet witty speech, well suited to the occasion.

I particularly liked the story about US humourist and journalist PJ O'Rourke who was asked by Clive Anderson, in a television interview some years ago, to explain his conversion from socialist-leaning student to Republican-leaning commentator.

Bemused by the question, the answer to which seemed blindingly obvious to O'Rourke, he replied: "I got a job."

I have noticed that a similar change often befalls students who profess to be libertarians. One minute they want to legalise all drugs and deregulate everything that moves. Then they get a job (or enter politics) and all those fine liberal sentiments are quietly ditched. (I won't speculate why but I think we can guess.)

Anyhow, I declined an invitation to stay the night and my decision was vindicated when I read the following message from Simon Richards, director of The Freedom Association, on Facebook this morning: "You know you're in a student hostel when ... you're woken up at 6.30am - by people going to bed."

Btw, when it was announced during the 'Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs' session that The Free Society would be paying for the drinks at last night's dinner there was a cheer and I got what I think was the biggest round of applause of the afternoon.

So the lesson from the Freedom Forum? Give a libertarian a drink and you've got a friend, if not for life then at least until they get a job.


Review of the week

As of today and every weekend henceforth, I am going to post links to the week's news stories on the new Forest website.

Likewise I shall be drawing your attention to articles that have appeared on The Free Society website.

This week, because the site has only just gone live, there are only two Forest headlines but in future there will be more reports for you to comment on:

And from The Free Society:

Btw, I got a bit of stick on this blog when I wrote that I didn't believe there were 250,000 people demonstrating in London last Saturday. But I'm pleased to say I'm not alone in querying the estimates that varied from 250,000 to 500,000.

Writing in this week's Spectator, Charles Moore (former editor of The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph) comments:

It would be a public service if the National Office for Statistics would find a way of counting crowd numbers properly. Numbers are a huge propaganda tool and they are almost always wildly guessed by march organisers and the media.

One paper says that Saturday's march was attended by 250,000, another by 450,000. No one knows. The only large protest where a proper count was made was the second Countryside March in 2002. Official tellers ticked people off as they crossed a line in Whitehall. Obviously, you might get counted twice, but in practice, it was not easy to turn around against the tide.

The figure was just over 400,000 and the march had taken about five hours. It is extremely unlikely that the figure for [the] anti-cuts march, although certainly large, was anything like that. There must be some more scientific means of knowing.

Yes, there is – an aerial survey conducted from a small light aircraft using state-of-art photographic equipment, as I mentioned on Monday.

No-one wants to do it of course because it suits everyone – protesters, the media, even the police – to collude in the idea that we have all witnessed or been part of a major event.

Fancy that!


The Free Society at the Freedom Forum

Since the appointment of Tom Miers as editor of The Free Society on March 1, the number of subscribers has risen by 20 per cent (a three-figure increase).

See TFS March 2011 ebulletin. To register your support and receive a copy of the bulletin direct to your inbox, click here.

Tomorrow, wearing my Free Society hat, I shall be in Birmingham speaking at the first Liberty League Freedom Forum.

I am sharing a platform with Simon Richards, director of The Freedom Association; Mark Wallace, former campaign manager, TaxPayers Alliance; and someone from a group called Students for Sensible Drug Policy. We're discussing 'Alcohol, tobacco and other drugs'.

Speakers at other sessions include Mark Littlewood (Institute of Economic Affairs), Josie Appleton (Manifesto Club), Claire Fox (Institute of Ideas), Alex Deane (Big Brother Watch), Guy Herbert (No2ID), Tom Clougherty (Adam Smith Institute), Tim Evans (Cobden Centre), Steve Baker MP (Conservative) and John Hemming MP (Lib Dem).

After dinner tomorrow The Free Society will be underwriting some late night drinks for delegates (nearly 100 "freedom-thinking students and recent graduates"). I do hope there are no 'incidents'.

See: Freedom and liberty in Birmingham (Simon Richards)


Ban alcohol in pubs - is this an April Fool?

Remarkable letter in today's Irish Independent.

It was written in response to a letter, published yesterday, by Forest Eireann's John Mallon: Let's save Irish pubs - bring back smoking.

According to Edward Horgan of Castletroy, Limerick, John has got it all wrong:

Mallon bemoans the loss caused by "more than a thousand pubs (that) have gone bust".

This is not a loss but a gain for our society. Why not consider a ban on alcohol in pubs also, and get rid of quite a few more, and initiate a major improvement in our physical and mental health?

See: Pubs going to the wall is a positive thing for our society.

I did wonder if this was an April Fool but author does appear to exist and he's an ex-army officer, not the type to write spoof letters to national newspapers!

You can read and comment on the full correspondence on the Forest Eireann blog.


One of those days

You just know it's going to be one of those days when you're sitting on the train and you suddenly realise that you ironed only one half of your shirt.


Live and kicking – the new Forest website

The new Forest website is now live and you can visit it here.

It's a project that is still in development but I'm rather pleased with it. Visually it's a big step forward, but the big difference is that visitors can now post comments on the site in response to breaking news stories.

The aim is to make the site more much immediate and interactive than the old one, so I hope you will add your own comments in the days and weeks ahead.

We are still editing and updating copy that has been transferred from the previous site. When that work is completed we will add new information and resources.

The site will be updated regularly so I hope you will bookmark it and become a frequent visitor. We want to create a useful resource for adults who enjoy consuming tobacco as well as providing them with a platform for their views.

Politicians, broadcasters and journalists will be alerted to the new site so the more people who post the better.

Be the first to add a comment to the new site – click here.

PS. Although the new site is live, your browser may send you to the old site (which had the same URL). Don't ask me why. It's something to do with the Domain Name System (DNS):

DNS is a hierarchical naming system built on a distributed database for computers, services, or any resource connected to the Internet or a private network. Most importantly, it translates domain names meaningful to humans into the numerical identifiers associated with networking equipment for the purpose of locating and addressing these devices worldwide.

Alternatively you may get a message saying "No page could be found at this address". Click on the 'Back to Home' link and it should take you to the new site.

It should sort itself out within 24 hours or so. If not, let me know.


What I remember about the introduction of the Irish smoking ban

Today is the seventh anniversary of the smoking ban in Ireland.

Older readers should look away now because I've told this story before (many times, in fact) but it was an occasion that for personal reasons I shall never forget.

The ban was introduced, if I remember, in the early hours of Saturday morning. I was intending to be there anyway but I was invited to Dublin as a guest of the Richard Littlejohn Show on Sky News. The producers had decided to do a live broadcast from the Shelbourne Hotel on St Stephen's Green on Friday night and the fact that England were playing Ireland in the Six Nations that weekend was, I guess, a coincidence and an added bonus for production staff.

Anyway the programme was broadcast from the main bar of the hotel from 7.00-8.00pm. Guests sat at small tables drinking and, in some cases, smoking, and Littlejohn moved from one table to another asking pre-arranged questions about the ban.

On my table was the former footballer (now an outspoken pundit and TV presenter) Eamonn Dunphy, who some might call a professional curmudgeon. I couldn't possibly comment. Thankfully he was on my side of the argument because I didn't fancy picking a fight with him.

Actually it was a miracle I was there at all. I had flown to Dublin the previous day and stayed overnight with friends in Delgany, Co Wicklow, which is south of the city. Around midday they dropped me at the station in Greystones, a mile up the road, so I could catch the train to Dublin, check into the Shelbourne (where Sky had booked me a room) and enjoy a quiet, relaxing afternoon.

It takes 50 minutes to get from Greystones to the city centre but it took me six hours. The trouble began when I boarded the wrong train, which was heading south instead of north. I didn't think this was possible because Greystones is the last stop on the DART (Dublin Area Regional Transport) network but in hindsight I had obviously caught a different service entirely.

Even then I didn't twig until, 15 minutes down the line, an inspector looked at my ticket and announced that I was travelling in the wrong direction.

He was very good about it, though. At the first available halt he instructed the driver to stop the train, helped me off, and pointed in the general direction of a few houses several hundred yards away and said, "See those houses? Keep walking. You'll come to a main road and a bus will take you back to Greystones."

Perhaps I should explain that a halt is nothing like a station. No platform, no taxis, no-one. It's the rail equivalent of a request stop for buses. As far as I could tell I had been dropped in the middle of a field miles from anywhere with a heavy bag and few directions other than the promise that I would eventually find the main road if I kept on walking.

To cut a long story short, I did find the main road. It was in a village called Kilcoole but to all intents and purposes Kilcoole was shut that afternoon. There weren't many cars on the road either and no sign of a bus.

I think I waited two hours but a bus did eventually appear and slowly (very slowly) took me back to Greystones where I finally caught the DART to Dublin. It was past six o'clock when I arrived in the city centre and I had to run (sweating) to the hotel where I checked-in, showered, before taking my seat in the well-lit bar where the Richard Littlejohn Show was about to start. I made it with 15 minutes to spare.

What really struck me that weekend was the response of the Irish media. There was a sense of pride that Ireland was "leading the world". The issue was tobacco control but it could have been anything. (The French, I'm sure, felt the same pride when they were the first to send fighter planes to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. "Leading the world", see.)

What mattered was the fact that, for one weekend at least, Ireland – and Dublin in particular - was the centre of world attention.

PS. ASH Ireland ("working towards a tobacco free society") is using the anniversary to urge the Irish Health Minister to introduce further measures to tackle smoking. It has produced a "10-point plan" which I am looking forward to reading ... (not).

See also: Amend smoking ban "to help save Irish pub", says Forest Eireann.


Coming soon ... 

I am spending the day putting some final touches to the new Forest website.

This is not a facelift, as in 2007. It looks totally different and has been built with new software, which we are just getting to grips with. (Actually, it's quite intuitive.)

There are a few bugs and what builders call snagging to sort out, but it should go live in a day or two.

Watch this space.