Tonight a very significant debate will take place in a small Buckinghamshire market town that could have serious consequences for all of us who believe in simple freedoms and choice.
Defending of basic liberties does take you to some strange places. Not that Stony Stratford is in anyway strange. It is its very normality that makes it slightly odd. But it is to this old market town on Watling Street, part swallowed by Milton Keynes, that I visited on Saturday to play my part in the battle for freedom. And tonight Stony Stratford Town Council will debate a proposal that could lead to smoking being banned in every street, park and public place in the area.
Stony Stratford, famous for its two coaching inns, The Cock and The Bull, last hit the national headlines in 1483 when Richard III took the young King Edward into custody, is in many ways Middle England, and as has been pointed out by better informed people than I, that when it comes to rebellion, England's rebellions are of a conservative nature. Most outbreaks of people against the system, from Hereward the Wake, through the Peasants Revolt and onwards through Buckinghamshire's own Captain Swing Riots, the Chartists and even the miners in their way have been in defence of what one can call, 'customary rights'.
And here we are again. Defending those customary rights in Stony Stratford. The reason is simple, a local Councillor in his wisdom has decided to make this town in my constituency a test case for liberty. He wishes to ban smoking, not merely in the pubs and cafes, after all that illiberal act has already been passed by those who claim to know so much better than us how to live our lives, but in the very streets and parks themselves.
Now, though a smoker myself, I am well aware that the habit can kill. I was taught what a dreadful thing it was to smoke, as was anybody born since the war. It's OK, we know but we makes our choices in life.
And we choose to ignore the warnings to our own detriment. That is what freedom tastes like. Of course our protest was organised on a Saturday in July so I should have known that an event designed specifically to be held out of doors would be driven inside by the downpour. And as must have been expected I was myself far far later than I should have been. (You try the M25 in what would be described on the Shipping Forecast as 'Heavy Rain... Bad").
However over a hundred people, a majority of them from the town, had stayed on past the other speakers to wait for me. I was flattered. Compared by one of the two organisers, the Blogger Dick Puddlecote (the other had been local UKIP stalwart Stuart Moore, they had already heard from Bill Etheridge, from The Freedom Association and Patrick Hayes from the Institute of Ideas talking about the dangers to civil liberties of such a ban. Next up was David Odell, a local business leader whose family have run their ironmongers for over a hundred and forty years in the High Street. David, who I met afterwards, to a greater or lesser extent is Stony Stratford. A thoroughly decent man who highlighted the harm such an idea could do, not only local businesses but also the spirit of the town itself. It prides itself on its welcome and community feeling. It has a couple of butchers on the High Street and a thriving pub trade. It is part of Britain in Bloom. What it doesn't need is a great sign saying, effectively: 'We do not want visitors'.
He was followed by Roger Helmer, a fellow MEP who in this as in so many other things is at variance with his own Conservative Party.
I spoke a few words, essentially reprising much of what had been said before and came away heartened.
Heartened by a few things. Most obviously that this attempt to enact an intolerant illiberal by law was so vociferously, and good-humouredly being opposed. The council meeting tonight is being shifted, such is the local interest, out of the council chamber into the parish church. Dozens of local people, businesses and residents are planning to go along to let the councillors know what local opinion really is. And it is important to note that the majority of these people are non smokers. The situation facing Stony eclipses the basic smoking debate, it becomes a battle for liberty where most local folk fundamentally appear to resent being told how to live their lives, and rightly so.
Councillors in Stony Stratford will tonight be voting on the proposal to ban smoking in all public places in the town. The country will be watching as Stony could become the first town in the UK to do so which could well prompt other councils to follow suit.
It is worth looking at these proposals just to see what we are talking about here,
1) Stony Stratford Town Council does not condone smoking and the health risks associated with it. This Council seeks to reduce the amount of litter in our streets and to protect our historic town from germs, general nuisance and the possibility of young people in particular being burnt by cigarettes.
2) Stony Stratford Town Council wishes to encourage all businesses in the town and, in doing so, to recognize the leading role they and residents can play in preventing the spread of disease, injury, litter, smoke, illnesses such as asthma, lung cancer and the narrowing of arteries, heart disease and its unpleasant other side effects and including the impact discarded cigarettes have on residents of Market Sq and High St in particular and children who have to put up with this 24hrs a day.
Stony is obviously a terrifying place to grow up in, but I cannot recall seeing anybody stubbing cigarettes out on young children 24hrs a day.
This town may well be hundreds of miles away from where you live but if this proposal is voted through then it has serious consequences for all of us. This country is built on tolerance and compromise and I sincerely hope that these values are very much in the front of the minds of those councillors debating tonight. The future of all of us is in their hands.
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