IN 2007, in an early example of the Puritan bansturbation culture that remains so much in vogue today, the UK government banned smoking in pubs. It is still claimed as a great success, an authoritarian but necessary act that saved the people from themselves by helping to extinguish, in both a metaphorical and literal sense, one of their worst habits.
In the process it is said to have saved (i.e. extended, because we all die one day) tens of thousands of lives.
But did it? A side effect was the closure of a great many ‘wet led’ pubs, to use the trade jargon – the kind of ‘locals’ where people, particularly older men, went for a quiet pint, a fag, and a bit of company of an evening. How much more loneliness did this lead to, especially amongst men in the autumn of their years? How many premature deaths and depression did this policy cause? Was it really worth the candle?
We are faced with a similar conundrum today with Covid-19, on an altogether more massive and serious scale. It is all very well stating that we should avoid contact with the elderly for fear of passing on the illness, but has anyone modelled the effects of loneliness on mortality rates, of older people living a life of fear and isolation, of perhaps having a fall at home and remaining undiscovered for hours or even days?
The point of this article is not to argue whether the smoking ban or the government’s policy on Coronavirus is right or wrong, but that as usual with public policy the importance of social capital and the long-term social effects of policy upon it are being underplayed. Culturally, Britain already has a poor record in its treatment of older people. (By a cruel irony, Italy, where older people are more valued and more often live with the young, seems to have suffered horribly as a consequence.) We are told it may take at least 18 months before things get back to normal. Even discounting the extreme difficulties in isolating the vunerable during that time, what will be the long-term effects of broken social habits after that time?
The worry is that we shall awake from this nightmare even more isolated and atomised than we are even now, and the lack of social capital in our society that social conservatives have long warned about is now being cruelly exposed. There are many reports of Londoners ignoring the government’s pleas to avoid unnecessary social contact. I am not surprised: I walked through Borough Market, where I then worked, a few days after the London Bridge slayings there. The pubs were full: the atmosphere wasn’t of people gathering in stoic defiance of Islamist evil, but simply of having a good time. They didn’t care. Nor did many seem to care after Lee Rigby was killed, or after the Manchester bombing killed many children, or about the horror of grooming gangs.
We are constantly told to demonstrate the Blitz spirit, but the Blitz happened when we had a homogeneous culture and sense of shared purpose. As the American political scientist Robert Putnam warned, hyper-diversity greatly lowers trust and cohesion in society.
Boris Johnson is to be commended in trying to get people to take action voluntarily rather than by command, as demonstrated by the ultra-authoritarian actions taken in France, but his words seem to have fallen at least partly on deaf ears. In circumstances like these a highly diverse society with weak social capital requires authoritarian leadership, which, of course, is what the Left wanted all along.