Giving civil liberties a bad name

This morning I heard a news item, marking a month since a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces came into force, involving one Dave West, a club owner on Jermyn Street, London W1, who was attempting to defy the ban. He apparently had a sign on the entrance to his lap-dancing joint saying “smokers welcome”, and was insisting that the smoking ban was an infringement on some 14 million people’s civil liberties. He has hired Cherie Blair’s legal firm, Matrix Chambers, to fight his case. Excuse me while I decide whether to wheeze or throw up.

I’m normally a big fan of civil rights. Civil rights usually mean such things as the police not being allowed to kick your door in at 4am, drag you into the station, imprison you for three months on spurious terrorist-related grounds, and then throw you in jail where some self-righteous armed robber can try to kill you, or actually kill you. I normally detest anti-rights rhetoric, because rights are simply the complement of having to treat people decently, and not harm them without right. For a teacher to say to a teenager, “you have no rights” (as some of mine said to me), actually means, “I can treat you how I like and there is nothing you can do”. However, civil liberties does not mean the right to harm others and to make others’ lives unpleasant and unhealthy, which is what smoking in a confined space does to people who work there.

Some might say, of course, that the bar staff don’t have to work in a bar. However, what if every employer took that attitude? The result would be a lot more industrial accidents as health and safety went out with the bathwater and companies failed to maintain sensitive equipment, such as vehicles. People have to make a living somehow, and work is not always as plentiful as it appears to be now. Sometimes we have recessions, and at such times there may be more compulsion to take a job which is bad for one’s health, just to get by. However, I didn’t think we accept that work had to be highly unpleasant or dangerous, or both, in this day and age. Companies can be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter if their negligence causes injury or death to an employee. Why on earth should pubs and strip clubs be any different?

There are actually two separate reasons why this idiot in Jermyn Street makes me angry. The first is that smoking causes illnesses, particularly to the lungs. This includes asthma. I know someone who acquired asthma from working in a smoky bar. I don’t think it was a particularly severe case, but asthma is a killer. I know this because it was the cause of the sudden death in my family which took place last Saturday. The victim leaves a thoroughly distressed wife and a 2-year-old-daughter.

The second is simply the damage cases like this do to the cause of civil liberties in general. The cause has been under sustained attack in politics and in the media for years; it’s seen as an obstruction to “getting things done” and its champions are seen as defenders of the bad rather than the good. Like the girl in Horsham with her publicity stunt for Silver Ring Thing UK Ltd, frivolous use of the law like this gives civil liberties a bad name. Shame on him.

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