Oxfordshire is not widely regarded as the home of illiberalism, nor is its county council traditionally associated with coercive policies.
The general approach in this favoured county, in which I happen to live, is one of trying to rub along together.
Or at any rate, it used to be. Yesterday I read a headline which I found hard to believe.
It was: ‘County that wants ban on smoking . . . outside.’ Poor sods, was my immediate reaction, thinking that the county in question must come under the sway of that dour busybody Nicola Sturgeon, or possibly the lugubrious chap who runs Wales.
But it was Oxfordshire. My own backyard.
The authorities in the county of dreaming spires, Blenheim Palace and the Henley Regatta are behaving like the rulers of a bullying little socialist republic.
Let me say at once that I’m not a smoker. To be absolutely honest, I may smoke a couple of cigarettes a year, and half a cigar every five years.
If you told me tobacco must never touch my lips again, it would have the same nugatory effect on me as an injunction that I must never eat another Toffo.
So this is not personal. I am not defending my own nasty habit. But I am defending the right of freeborn Britons to puff away outside when there is no risk of damaging others.
‘I am defending the right of freeborn Britons to puff away outside when there is no risk of damaging others’
For we Oxfordshire folk like to think that what originates here, good or bad, will one day be adopted elsewhere.
The ideas in an Oxfordshire County Council document ominously entitled The Final Push will be lapped up by the bossy overlords of our largest cities.
The Gauleiters of my own dear county don’t pull their punches. They have a fixed ambition to make Oxfordshire ‘smoke-free’ by 2025.
To that end, smokers will be banned — if the plan goes ahead — from lighting up outside cafes, pubs and restaurants.
Employers will be asked to enforce smoke-free spaces outside shops, offices and factories to help staff kick the habit.
The NHS and other local organisations will be enjoined to ban smoking near hospitals, play parks and school gates. Smoking would be discouraged in homes and cars.
It is true that, at any rate for the time being, people will be allowed to puff on a cigarette in their own gardens, if they have one.
But who can doubt that the zealots in County Hall would like to extend their powers to cover our private patches?
Their desire is to outlaw all smoking. It is rather surprising that they should think they have the legal right to do so, and I wonder whether they do.
But I can’t see this Tory government, which during the pandemic has grown fond of curtailing our liberties, opposing the fanatics of County Hall.
By the way, I should mention that, following an unexpected political earthquake in the recent local elections, Oxfordshire County Council is now in the hands of a Labour-Lib Dem-Green Coalition.
It may have even less respect for our ancient freedoms than its Conservative predecessor.
I accept, of course, that smoking is bad for your health, and I am happy for sensible amounts of public money to be spent pointing this out in order to discourage the habit.
The ideas in an Oxfordshire County Council document ominously entitled The Final Push will be lapped up by the bossy overlords of our largest cities
The Government already applies a swingeing tax, so that 20 fags cost an incredible sum of between £12 and £13.
Cigarettes are concealed from public view in most shops, and many smokers in search of a packet would probably feel less ill at ease asking for a top-shelf magazine.
It’s right that tobacco advertising of all sorts has long been banned to put off children from smoking.
Because of the health risk of inhaling someone else’s cigarette smoke, it’s also right that the habit has been prohibited in indoor shared spaces.
But despite countless impediments and disincentives, a minority of adults — just over 14 per cent in England, according to 2018 figures — still smoke. Shouldn’t they be allowed to do so, provided that they don’t harm other people?
Previous restrictions have been defended on the basis that they are necessary to avoid causing damage to innocent people.
No such justification is available in the case of a lone smoker having a solitary puff on a park bench.
The Oxfordshire plan is therefore revolutionary. Its message is that the State — in the apparently unthreatening guise of County Hall — has the right to prevent you from doing something not because it is injurious to others, but because it is injurious to you.
Ah, I can hear someone pointing out that the State already claims such a right, for example by legally obliging each of us to wear a seat belt in a car.
It thereby insists that it is entitled to determine what is best for us — a controversial assumption when the measure was introduced in 1983.
But most people accept this curb on their liberties because they can see the great potential benefit of wearing a seat belt in the event of an accident, and they acknowledge that being required to do so involves only a very minor inconvenience.
Smoking is different inasmuch as it provides enjoyment to millions of people.
And although dangerous to the smoker, I would suggest that it is less so than proscribed drugs such as cannabis, which can cause psychosis.
What about the cost to the hard-pressed NHS? According to the anti-smoking lobby group Action on Smoking and Health, 2,132 people died from smoking-related causes in Oxfordshire between 2012 and 2017.
But I am sure that thousands also died in this period from alcohol-related diseases.
A study by Imperial College London, published this week, argues that drinking even within modest government guidelines — about six pints of beer or ten small glasses of wine a week — adversely affects the body’s organs.
An analysis of MRI scans of thousands of people in late middle-age suggested that alcohol consumption is linked to reduced brain matter volume, increased heart ventricle mass and higher levels of fat on the liver, even in moderate drinkers.
Should alcohol therefore be banned? I don’t intend to give it up, and I hope the health police won’t deny me medical care if I end up in hospital with a slightly dodgy liver and some brain cells missing.
If Oxfordshire County Council were consistent, it would ban all non-essential traffic on the county’s roads, which accounts for around 30 deaths and 275 serious injuries a year, according to its own figures.
The cost to the NHS and local economy must be enormous.
Living, and enjoying the good things of life, are sometimes intrinsically risky. It is monstrously unfair of the authorities to penalise smokers who simply want to have a fag outside, and are doing no harm to anyone except themselves.
Would it have been proposed before the pandemic? I rather doubt it.
Officious killjoys throughout the land have observed the Government whittling away our liberties in the cause of fighting Covid, and yearn to borrow from the same playbook.
This local spat is doubtless the precursor of more serious incursions into our personal freedoms — which is why it is so important that we tell the Oxfordshire Taliban exactly what to do with their pernicious little plan.