I refuse to give up tobacco. Put that in your pipe and smoke it

I am still fuming, so to speak, with the news that the government intends to ban the display of cigarettes and tobacco from all shops by 2015.
It is, in a perverse way, reassuring to know the spivs, gangsters and poltroons (from Old Italian poltrone, a coward) running this country can irritate at the micro as well as the macro level. One can also imagine how successful this idea will be. In comes the nicotine addict, desperate for his or her fix. But there are no tobacco products to be seen! He or she thinks to him or herself: "Oh dear. I might as well give up."

Then again, in my youth the massed ranks of striking, sometimes classy cigarette packets did go some way to persuading me that smoking was desirable. But I wonder if treating cigarettes as pornography used to be - sold under the counter - might not make them seem more alluring. Proper tobacconists will now, absurdly, have to have frosted windows, like porno­graphers, which is surely an invitation to the imaginative shop designer. In a reverie, I consider opening a tobacconist's myself, with a storefront painted to look like a tin of Ogden's Nut-brown Flake. Of course, I am channelling Ezra Pound's 1916 poem "The Lake Isle":

O GOD, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the little bright boxespiled up neatly upon the shelves . . .
. . . And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.
O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
or install me in any profession
Save this damn'd profession of writing,
where one needs one's brains all the time.

Younger readers will have to imagine what a tobacco-shop looks like, unless they happen to be in the neighbourhood of G Smith and Sons on Charing Cross Road. Fribourg and Treyer in the Haymarket went years ago, turned into a shop selling tourist tat; all three of Cambridge's tobacconists have gone, al­though the one opposite the Round Church hung on until relatively recently; it now sells sweets.

Sic transit gloria mundi, even the little ones. For solace I turn to Chris Harrald and Fletcher Watkin's splendid work, The Cigarette Book: a Celebration and Companion (Quartet, 2009), in which you will learn, among many other things, that Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girl (1604) features a tobacco-shop onstage, and that the cigarette lighter was co-invented by an engineer who had lost an arm in the First World War and found matches impossible.

My favourite datum, though, is from a study presented at the European Society of Cardiology in 2003, which found that 250ml of red wine countered the harm done to the arteries by each cigarette. Apparently you have to be drinking at the same time as you are smoking, which presents no problem. The authors calculate that a 40-a-day habit would entail drinking three bottles a day, "which, as anybody who has worked in the City or advertising in their heyday would acknowledge, is perfectly doable".

Penny drops in

I know, I know, it's bad for you. In some cases, very bad indeed. Please save both your time and mine by refraining from writing to remind me of this. But when loathsome people tell me to do something, my immediate inclination is to do the precise opposite. If David Cameron and his gargoyles told me to carry on, there is every likelihood that I would recoil from the habit. But something tells me this isn't going to happen. And while there is economic hardship - and something tells me this is going to be a persistent and increasingly pervasive condition - there will continue to be smokers.

Poor people smoke not only because the habit is a diversion from circumstance, but because it is also a minor act of rebellion; an indulgence, too, of the Freudian Thanatos. Saying to life, as it were: put that in your pipe and smoke it. And one thinks, too, of the cartoon showing two decrepit old men sitting in a ghastly retirement home, one of them saying to the other: "Just think, if we hadn't given up smoking, we'd have missed out on all this."

Meanwhile, there is momentous news from the Hovel. A third person will be joining myself and Emmanuelle: this magazine's very own Laurie Penny. How this will all go I cannot foretell, but she doesn't take up much space, so that's promising. She also smokes. Which I would like to think is one of the reasons she writes so well.


Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide