Smoking Scot.
December 2010.

Tenacious Dutch.  

Any nation that takes on the North Sea, no matter how overwhelming the odds, warrants a thumbs up. Perhaps the only country in the world that has three classes of moped, 25kph, 45kph and unrestricted, with the slowest allowed to use their extensive network of cycle routes.

One particularly endearing trait is their lack of reverence for authority figures, especially politicians. Those they keep on a voter friendly leash with a PR system that enables parties with little more than 4% of the vote to gain representation. Thus, when they start to get too uppity, people form a single issue party and, during the lengthy coalition forming process, get real close and personal.

Being Dutch spares them from the likes of Murdoch or Bloomberg who shun niche linguistic markets. Freed from such predation they enjoy a remarkably candid and liberal press, numerous independent radio and television stations and they've taken to the web in a big way.

One huge advantage this affords them is when it comes to judging public opinion. There it's almost a bottom up thing that lead to their adoption of euthanasia many years ago, to widespread public support. Another example was their solution to Marijuana; rather than attempt to legislate it away they came up with a pragmatic solution that works.

The smoking ban is a fascinating case study where their health department made most of the running before the ban and, once people discovered how it worked in practice, public opinion changed within days. Then it was the turn of those at the sharp end to have their say.

A stack of independent self-employed bar owners with no other staff, many of them smokers themselves, fronted up the cash to take their case to the public and the politicians. Their main arguments being that they're not employed by anyone and not prepared to be bundled in with a law that's designed to protect employees; also many have premises way too small to be sub-divided into smoking and non-smoking rooms. They managed to garner somewhere in the region of 70 and 80% public support and, as soon as a new government was formed, the smoking ban was amended to exempt all owner-run bars up to 70 sq mts. (Those over 70 sq mts have no option than a separate smoking room).

What started as a loose coalition has a spokesman, Wiel Maessen, and has morphed into a recognized organisation. In his candid interview with the press Mr. Maessen explained:

“Lower class people tend to drink in these places and they were being punished.

Higher standard pubs and restaurants don't mind being smokeless. But small bars have an important social function.

Public health workers tell us smoking is bad for you. Well the ban is very bad for your social and psychological health.

It's much more complex than they tell us.

I hope the same thing happens in the UK now.

I vow I will only give up the day the smoking ban is overturned completely.”

If the smoking bans have done anything worthwhile, it's been to mobilize the talents of individuals like Mr. Maessen.

Await developments because we may be seeing something very similar to a shipyard worker in Gdańsk who decided he'd had enough.

Intransigent English.

Nothing in Westminster is quite what it seems, yet we have so many brand new MPs that once in a while something can seem clear cut. But isn't.

In October David Nuttall attempted a fairly innocuous proposal to relax the smoking ban in pubs and private clubs, to allow separate smoking rooms and expensive air filtration systems which, had it sailed through, may have resulted in a situation similar to Italy. Too expensive to install air filtration or too small to sub divide, less than 5% might be tempted to give it a go.

A reasonable first effort from a non-smoker, however it was doomed from word go and shortly after his allocated ten minutes, his proposal was voted down by 141 to 86.

The anticipated exaltations from the anti-smoking groups didn't happen. There were no press releases of any consequence and, aside from a couple of smoker phobic MP's, who sought to make mileage in their local newspaper, nothing.

Yes Mr Nuttall was granted ten minutes of parliamentary time to do something that wouldn't have happened under the previous lot, but that doesn't constitute a significant change of policy. At best it's the sort of fudge the coalition agrees to appease some MPs so they can claim they fulfilled their election pledges.

Nope, it's got to do with the frustrating reality that every single impartial poll that's ever been taken since 2002 has always come back with the same implacable result. 78 to 80% of those polled always say they have no problems with private members clubs allowing smoking and somewhere in the region of 75% always say they have no problem with pubs doing so either. More difficult to accept is that number is going up as the years go by, something to do with generations of young people finding it increasingly to get reasonable part time jobs.

This has always posed a serious problem to those charged with enforcing the ban: what happens if anyone decides to test certain aspects of the ban in court if you know that 80% of the jury is sympathetic to the plaintiff from the outset? That's why they use threats, entreaties, persuasion and relatively affordable fines for first offenders.

There have been attempts to test the ban using wheelchair bound participants. In both cases the Judge refused permission to bring the case before the court (in essence there's no mileage in trying to prosecute a publican for not forcing an invalid outside to have a smoke).

However there are areas where the legislation was over-stretched and is vulnerable. In certain cases a private members club can claim it is not a public place and has no employees to protect (i.e. if they're genuine volunteers). The self-employed, as they have California and the Netherlands, can legitimately claim they're not employees and do not need the protection of the law. Private land owners who chose to offer a three sided shelter can likewise claim it's not an enclosed space.

There are many more examples, however no lawyer need be an especially gifted orator to convince a jury of the merits of any. As the law stands it's a nonsense and any normal person, when asked to consider any case in isolation, need only use reasonable judgment and their common sense.

If 75 to 80% of any jury are pre-disposed toward the plaintiff on pubs and clubs, consider that more than 90% are of the opinion that three sided shelters are not enclosed spaces. And don't imagine that Judges and Lawyers are very different to the rest of us.

Looking at the vote another way. All parties took a neutral stand on this issue, leaving MP's to vote as they saw fit. There are 650 of them in Westminster; 141 voted against relaxing the ban, or 21.7% of the house, meaning the other 78.3% wanted change or couldn't be fussed either way. And that's about as close a reflection of public sentiment as you'll ever get with this lot.

That's why there's been no bouncing around, no punching the air and no crowing that they “won”.

Sorry Scots.

There's democracy and there's Scotland. Despite overwhelming support for voluntary euthanasia, we were again let down by our legislators when they rejected a proposal to allow its introduction, subject to very strict controls.

It's perfectly understandable that Holyrood has an unenviable reputation for being very choosy about which "will of the people" they might reflect, and it might be amusing were it not so harmful to others. They'd prefer to dine on their knickers than admit they're responsible for the collapse of the leisure sector, thus any poll that shows support for relaxing the smoking ban in private clubs or pubs is ignored and any notion that indoor smoking rooms will be welcomed by land locked pubs as well as incensed adjoining property owners is a non-starter.

But to betray their people by denying them access to a guaranteed and painless means to end their lives is a callous travesty that goes way beyond 80 odd flavours of narrow mindedness. They seem to have a vision for Scotland that's so idealistic that only believers of children's books, romantic pulp fiction and the “Celestine Prophecy” can ever come close to understanding. It's not based on fact, it's not shared by the electorate, it's an insult to common sense, to fairness and is an abomination.

Maybe it's to do with working in a sound proofed, gas proof, bullet proof and terrorist proof concrete bunker. Perhaps it's got to do with their playing at politics for the sheer hell of it. Certainly they can't walk away from this one thinking it's going to go away because, for all their quasi-religious mumbo jumbo, all their moral conflicts and all their crocodile tears, the fact remains that Scotland is top of the leader board for “Therapeutic Abortions” and suicides. The former paid for and usually carried out by our NHS and the later caused at least in part by their blind stupidity. (Note the spikes following the smoking ban in 2006 for suicides and abortions).

Statistics for suicides in Scotland and abortions in Scotland for 2005 to 2009.

Death by: 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Suicide (Scotland) 763 765 838 843 746
Abortion (Scotland) 12,603 13,051 13,703 13,817 13,005
Death by:
Euthanasia (NL) 1,933 1,923 2,120 2,331 2,636

As seen from the statistics for euthanasia in the Netherlands from 2005 to 2009, where the population is roughly three times the size of Scotland, the number of people who elect to chose the time and manner of their passing by seeking assisted suicide is growing in popularity. It's a lot more dignified than having to risk taking dog poison via an Internet provider, taking a pile of sleeping pills, leaping from a bridge or hanging around in a locked garage waiting for the car fumes to do their bit. Not only is it 100% guaranteed, it allows the terminally ill to sort their Will, ensure their lawyer can act quickly, save piles on fees and avoid any ambiguity between beneficiaries.

When we know our body is ruined, when we acknowledge that all the money and acquisitions we held dear are nothing more than bobbles, then the only things that really matter are the people we love and care about. It doesn't matter if it's a tumour that's eating us from the inside, or some inherited genetic mutation; the shock is not to the person experiencing it, the shock is only to those who have to carry on without you. There is nothing good, nothing honourable and damn all merit to ending your life in exquisite agony. It makes whimpering curs out of the strongest and is invariably a time that loved ones would prefer to forget. Indeed, it's the grinding frustration of not being able to help that's so very difficult to handle.

That people want to avoid unbearable pain is not in dispute. A 72 year old husband will spend 2 years in jail for assisting his wife to die rather than continue seeing her suffer or make another failed attempt to take her own life. It spares us from being a party to such blatant abuses of the legal system and from paying for the gentleman to spend time in jail for an act of incredible love and self sacrifice.

Voluntary Euthanasia will come to Scotland in due course because it's becoming horribly expensive to shell out on pain relief and care for the terminally ill; because many of us value quality of life over total dependency and because, increasingly, many of our old folk are treated worse than animals. But it can only come when we get real political maturity in Holyrood (some voted against the proposal only because they didn't like the lady behind it) and an admission that Scotland doesn't want nor need 129 MSPs, 57 MPs and 6 Euro MPs. Singly the most over-represented region in the UK, they've yet to grasp they're the appendage and we waggle them.

Until then, sorry folks, just go on killing yourselves as best you can.
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