There are days when I feel there is still hope of rekindling 21st century Britain's - once fierce but now suffocated and flickering - flame of respect for hard-won freedoms, and yesterday was one of them.
Not the whole day, though, which is both the exhilarating and infuriating appeal of the excellent annual Battle of Ideas festival, now in its tenth incarnation. Each of the sessions - as I and others have found in previous events - carries a capacity to throw up what I would term 'pantomime' baddies if it weren't for their very real existence.
It was at the second of two sessions I attended at the Barbican yesterday where self-described Blairite Dan Hodges became my prime villain for 2014. In answer to the question "Kindergarten culture: why does government treat us like children?" he preached to those of us who are obviously not as wise as him that "government treats people like children, because they act like them". You see, "from eating too much to polluting the planet", Dan is convinced that the public will always choose wrongly so need to be guided by those who know better. It's not that Dan thinks we are incapable of making the right decisions, far from it. He believes we can make the 'correct' decisions, but only if we are told to make them by politicians (no, I'm not making this up, I have witnesses).
His justification for being part of the elite who feel they are able to judge whether our decisions are correct or not - as usual for those who are blasé about freedom of choice - were the precedents of seat belt laws and the smoking ban. Describing himself as a "mild statist" and basing his arguments on our being part of a "collective", his view is that restricting our liberties for our own sake is an empirical good which is beyond debate. The smoking ban, for example, was incontestably good because "my pub is much better now because my clothes don't smell after a night out". He must be a very hard-working man if he owns a pub as well as writing for the Telegraph, I thought, but other publicans - especially ones whose clientèle and staff were perfectly happy without a ban but whose businesses have now closed - might not view the expropriation of their property rights in the same enthusiastic manner.
At least his point was made with honesty; it was solely his personal satisfaction he cited as proof of success, not some fake concocted health scare which bamboozled politicians who rely on state-funded vested interests for their information. You know, those politicians who are then adequately informed to impart their wisdom and make decisions for all of us in the form of one-size-fits-all illiberal laws, with no equivocation or exemptions of any kind. Err, in a nation of 64 million people.
Equally unconcerned by proscription of behaviour by the state was Dan's fellow panellist Martha Gill of the Economist. She saw a threat to freedom with not allowing assisted dying - something on which I can happily agree - but not with the 'research' of 'experts'. It's all good, see, because "people don't have time to read all the nutritional information of the back of a Haribo packet or read thousands of research papers about the hazardous effects of tobacco".
Her view of sin taxes was that they just make our free choices that bit more expensive - not that choice is being gradually extinguished - and she cheerfully dismissed JS Mill's widely-accepted theory on the effect of sin taxes.
“Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”She was understandably not aware of events in Russia during the preceding week, but - such is her unshakeable belief in state interference - I'm not even sure a baldly stated aim of prohibition by way of taxation (while press types like Martha were excluded) would have swayed her if this had turned up during her regular spot as a Sky News newspaper reviewer.
Goal of UN/WHO tobacco convention leader: "enact maximum taxes & increase prices in such a way it makes tobacco consumption impossible."
— Drew Johnson (@Drews_Views) October 15, 2014
Bloody love Battle of Ideas. Really passionate, independent-minded knowledgeable audience. You need to be on your guard or they'll ruin you.
— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) October 19, 2014
It's a question Dan was unable to answer, but he valiantly tried. He referred to children of parents with strict religious beliefs and said that the state should be required to step in on their behalf. "But we're talking about adults here", retorted the stubborn student. Martha then attempted to counter his principle with an example whereby a patient may be presented with such overwhelming evidence by his GP that refusing treatment would be unconscionable. "But they still have a choice", replied the future medic, to stymied silence.
Unfortunately for Dan (especially) and Martha, unless they had been present during the preceding session in the hothouse basement of the Pit Theatre they wouldn't have been aware that their trust in 'experts' and government expertise had already been rendered superficial and almost puerile.
The Barbican website states that the room holds 200, and I saw precious few empty seats as Timandra Harkness hosted the session entitled "The science of public health: where’s the evidence?" with customary humorous brilliance. It was a 90 minutes which was as entertaining as it was revealing.
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, a real GP with real regular contact with patients, was proper box office. He began by strongly questioning why Lord Darzi - a surgeon - should be proposing parks smoking bans in London at all when evidence for health benefits of parks bans (there is none - DP) is not remotely associated with his area of expertise. He followed with a hilarious anecdote of being present at an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Richard Doll's world famous doctors' study where the distinguished doc was told to shut up for repeatedly telling the audience that the passive smoking health scare is bunkum, before Fitzpatrick moved on to pointing out that the 5 a day advice for fruit and vegetables government tells us is essential is based on zero evidence.
Henry Ashworth observed that those performing 'research' into perceived public health threats are almost always now the same people who advocate for laws to condemn behaviours, and that "when best evidence is merely a computer model, we have to be very careful" (minimum pricing, plain packs anyone?). He also astutely identified the fact that just about every 'public health' lobbying group can be linked with industries who will benefit from their pre-conceived research conclusions (e-cig bans come to mind).
Dr Elizabeth Pisani also had the aisles rocking with an account of an Australian 'public health' seminar where success was measured by highlighting how causes of death in years past were ranked in order and predictions for the future made. Those present trumpeted how cardiovascular disease was being beaten by prohibitionist policies, and that future problems would only be benign stuff like dementia and depression. Pisani noted that this was a great success, "after a lifetime of not drinking, smoking and eating all the correct foods, we can enjoy an old age of being demented and depressed".
Lastly, Michael Blastland - a statistician who is one of the few honest people to identify smoking ban heart attack 'miracles' as pure junk science, and on the BBC no less - queried why there is no big public health attack on "Big Sofa" considering inactivity is as bad as smoking. Perhaps, he suggested, it is because there is "no identifiable enemy". He also described a UCL anti-drinking campaign poster in the university bar - which was brutal in its message but resulted in an increase in drinking - to explain why he doubts that public health cares about the efficacy of their policies. "I find that interesting but I see no interest from 'public health' in it".
The panel may have been united in doubts about the public health industry and its grossly exaggerated expertise, but it was probably for the best because the mostly young audience in the post-panel Q&A were fizzing in condemnation. Sitting near to me was a 30 something who audibly agreed with everything she had heard. She was one of the first up to declare that she works with youths in college and university who present themselves to her insisting that they are unhealthy and require help; are terrified of eating the wrong foods; and worry themselves senseless about how much water they are supposed to be drinking.
An audience member from Brighton vehemently complained that calm enjoyment of life was "covered by the damp clammy hand of public health", while a representative from the Pregnancy Advisory Service declared her conflict of interest as being involved in issuing the press release which condemned anti-alcohol scare stories for causing petrified mums-to-be to demand abortions. She claimed that her team were contacted and put under pressure to retract it; that "you can't say that, it confuses the public health message, it should be simple and say there should be no drinking at all".
None of this would cut any ice with Dan and Martha. For them, 'public health' is an unimpeachable source of sage advice, and politicians the conduit for their expert opinion. I don't think Dan, for example, is even capable of considering questioning the core of the advice being offered. As a mild statist, it would be heresy to him.
For the the thousands who attended the Battle of Ideas, though, these are fundamental issues which need addressing and it's illogical that someone like Dan can assume everyone else is stupid and unable to make what he has decided - without in-depth investigation - are 'correct' decisions.
Yes. Yesterday at the Battle of Ideas proved that the concept of personal freedoms is not yet dead; that the flickering flame has not yet been extinguished in the young; and it was, most definitely, a very good day.