The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Party

The best party ever is back for its tenth year.

Freedom is not about allowing people to do things that you approve of. Freedom is about protecting peoples’ rights to do things you find distasteful.

So said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute at its 10th Annual Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Party last Saturday.

The ATF party – "the most fun, most politically incorrect event of the year" – invites members of the public to "celebrate the perks of adulthood" by partaking in a "PETA-friendly clay pigeon shoot followed by a clubhouse luncheon complete with whiskey and cigars in one of the last places available to smokers – the outside".

As reported by C-Span:

"This year the forum focuses on personal liberties and gun rights. Participants discuss government regulation of tobacco, food and drink, and are critical of what some speakers call the "Nanny State". Other topics include the New York City ban on trans fats, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on certain soft drink sizes, global warming and this year’s presidential campaign.

It would be easy to dismiss an event where one of the speakers, David Matosko, considers global warming "an aggressive hoax" as yet another case-in-point to the sheer lunacy of the American 'right'. But much more lucid speakers, such as David Kopel, the Institute’s Research Director, point to some unpalatable truths about the hypocrisy and intolerance that plague both sides of the partisan fence.

Kopel begins by criticising Mayor Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns as a powerful lobby for the prohibition of guns in general, rather than simply the prohibition of illegal guns. He goes on to state that the there are 19 members of the group "who have left office for felony convictions, or are under indictment (...). Mayor Bloomberg's organisation has a much higher crime rate than people who have permits to carry guns for lawful protection. I think in the interest of truth in advertising that the proper way to refer to this group is Illegal Mayors Against Guns.".

The tongue-in-cheek tone of the party is later sobered by Kopel's call to divert Colorado tax money from unconstitutional "corporate welfare" to more grassroots community projects. In particular reference to the Aurora shooting this summer, the speaker calls for more investment in mental health services.

He later highlights the glaring hypocrisy of a country that has banned smoking in films, but emphatically glorifies violent gun misuse. Kopel argues that violence is indisputably condoned, but the key is to encourage a responsible gun sports culture:

We are not only on the pro-choice side, we are on the pro-life side as well. What we do every day is to fight for those lifesaving values of safety responsibly.

The underlying ethos of the ATP is best summarised by Caldara himself – in many places, a liberal accepting gun culture is as socially unacceptable as being against same-sex marriage. In this sense, the ATP stands as an attack to the tribal, divisive, and outright illogical divide that keeps the USA in gridlock.

As Rob Dreher notes:

As with so much in contemporary American politics, the gun control issue is not about reason and dispassionate analysis of the facts. It's about emotional assertion and rhetorical bullying amid an atmosphere of mutual incomprehension.

The ATF logo. Photograph: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle