What do these measures have in common? In 1875 the age of consent is raised from 12 to 13. In 1908 the sale of opium is restricted to people known to a pharmacist. In 1935 the first urban speed limit of 30 miles per hour is introduced. In 1983 it becomes compulsory to wear a seat belt if one is fitted in the car. In each of these cases, politicians were accused of being overzealous and interfering, or, to use the trite modern expression, of promoting a "nanny state". In each, however, the public soon appreciated its merit.
It is in this context that the debate over smoking should be seen. As the cabinet appears to move towards an outright ban in pubs, so the plaintive cries about "freedom" become ever more shrill. Freedom to do what exactly? To satisfy one's own pleasure, or addiction, even where it is proven to cause considerable and irrevocable harm to others?
Discussion of liberty and the state is, by its nature, subjective and inconclusive. The New Statesman profoundly opposes panic counter-terrorism moves by governments that imperil civil liberties (a subject to which we will be returning in future issues). Any rules-based society, by its nature, sets parameters for our behaviour, our rights and responsibilities. These are not confined to the public space. What we do in our own homes, from internet downloading to the treatment of our family members, is strictly proscribed.
Public health falls within this remit - from illegal drug taking to malnourishment of children, the state does not and should not stand idly by. Far from meddling too much, this government has, if anything, been too hesitant to act. Where is the public interest in producing mere guidelines for junk-food advertisers? Why did ministers act on the horrific quality of school meals - among the worst in the developed world - only when a celebrity chef decided to get involved? In most (although by no means all) cases it is the poor and vulnerable who are most adversely affected by a laissez-faire approach.
The proposals outlined last November to ban smoking in public places from 2008, but to exempt pubs that do not serve food, went some way to dealing with the problem. But they have fallen between two stools (perhaps an appropriate analogy when applied to pubs). Ultra-libertarians - smokers and non-smokers among them - have cried foul, while the medical profession, trade unions and others complain that the plans fail to solve the problem. They have also produced an unintended consequence, with some pub chains suggesting that, particularly in poorer areas, they will get rid of their lunch menus in order to allow their punters to puff.
International precedent comes often from the most unlikely quarters. In Ireland, after an initial and inevitable drop in numbers following a total smoking ban, pubs are as popular as ever. In Italy, a country not usually prone to strict observance of the law, smoking restrictions tend to be observed and do not seem to be having an adverse effect on la dolce vita. From New York to Norway, Scotland to Wales, for all the mutterings of the few, the many support the changes. To say that is not to support the tyranny of the majority. Minority tastes must be respected. If accepting smoking is part of the terms for joining a private club, then so be it. But there is no reason why an unsuspecting member of the public should be subjected to possible harm.
Now it seems that, in a welcome display of cabinet consensus, Tony Blair is being prevailed upon to show some courage. In a few years' time, as with other changes over the years, most voters will wonder what all the fuss was about.
The NS and the BBC
The reactions to last week's cover story on the BBC have been passionate and diverse. From the corporation's management: a stream of angry denials (see Letters, page 38). From many journalists inside the orga-nisation: discreet but warm appreciation. Comment from outside the BBC has been largely supportive. Where there has been criticism, it has ranged from the considered to the less considered, including the odd person with a personal grudge against the magazine.
As we have argued since publication, we stand fully behind the story and are confident both of the quality and quantity of our sources. It is in the nature of a story that relies largely on high-level whistle-blowers that their identities cannot be revealed. It was therefore unwise of Mark Thompson, the director general, in his original response to BBC staff, to accuse the New Statesman of lying.
What ultimately matters, however, is the big picture. The BBC is one of Britain's greatest assets, in many respects still a beacon to the world. Its confidence took a severe battering from Lord Hutton's absurd and unjustified report. The response from the corporation's new management team was a retreat into ultra-caution and suspicion of senior journalists who sought to rock the boat.
The examples we cited and the conclusions we drew clearly touched a very raw nerve. Our intention was not to impugn BBC journalists, but to highlight an institutional culture of timidity in which they have been forced to operate. If we have drawn the public's attention to a top-down aversion to risk-taking and a deference to authority (of all political hues), then we have done some good. If we have contributed to a steeling of the BBC management's nerve, leading to unqualified support for bold and difficult journalism, then we will have done better still.