Lady Trumpington is on the warpath. At the age of 81, the author of the tremendous dictum ‘I’d rather be common than middle-class’ will deploy her formidable rhetorical powers to condemn a wretched piece of legislation. The ‘Bill to prohibit the smoking of tobacco by any person in Wales while in a public place’, as its long title runs, is now making its way through the House of Lords, and Lady Trumpington is one of the select band of peers who oppose it.
For nearly 70 years she was herself a heavy smoker: ‘I started at the age of 11 and smoked 40 a day until two years ago. No doctor has ever gone at me, really, but I think a lot of them smoke anyway. I used to be a junior health minister [from 1985-87]. When I went on visits to hospitals and other such places I could just about last a couple of hours without a cigarette and then I’d say, “I’m sorry, I’ve simply got to have a fag,” and all the doctors and nurses would say “Thank God,” and out would come all the ashtrays.’
When I met her at the House of Lords, Lady Trumpington passed me some sheets of writing paper on which in her firm, round hand she had drafted the opening of her forthcoming speech. Here is an exclusive preview: ‘I would never have stopped smoking had I not been in hospital for reasons totally unconnected with tobacco. Three times, with a high temperature, I wandered down to the street in my nightdress and smoked a delicious cigarette. Once I lit up in my room — almost immediately a giant all dressed in white descended on me to tell me I was about to blow up the entire hospital. A kind lady showed me the fire escape where she assured me that as long as I kept my foot in the door I could smoke to my heart’s content.
‘And then suddenly I thought how lily-livered I was; this was my big opportunity to see if I could give up. It was horrible, but I have never smoked a cigarette since.
‘Do I feel better? No. Am I richer? I don’t know why, but no. Am I fatter? Oh yes. So I am thinking that the only gain has been sheer convenience. Would I start again? No, partly because it would give such smirking pleasure to those peers on the other side of the House who have taunted me through the years. Apart from those bigoted peers the answer is Yes.
‘But at the age of 81 I am left with one pleasure and that’s passive smoking. I love it! To listen to all the rubbish that is spoken concerning passive smoking only confirms me in my belief that somebody will find something wrong with everything if you only give them time.’
The Private Member’s Bill introduced by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, professor of palliative medicine at the University of Wales and former Welsh Woman of the Year, would give the Welsh Assembly the power to prohibit smoking in a public place, and also to decide what constitutes a public place. Whether the government will make time for the Bill in the Commons is unclear: ministers may decide to scupper it because they dislike the idea of devolving additional powers to Wales. But the persecution of smokers is so much in vogue that the chances of some such measure becoming law in the next few years must be reckoned very high.
Researchers have compiled for Lady Trumpington a list of the risks associated with various other activities. She will point out to the Lords that people who eat pizza on average once a week are less likely to develop cancer of the colon, oesophagus and mouth (the Mario Negri Research Institute, Milan); that people over 50 who lift weights during exercise are at a higher risk of aortic dissection, an often fatal heart condition (Yale University); that men over 65 who eat chocolate more than three times a month live a year less than those who don’t (Harvard School of Public Health); that cooking with flour increases the risk of chest tightness, coughing and wheezing (British Thoracic Society); and that grandmothers who provide care to grandchildren for more than nine hours a week have a 55 per cent greater risk of heart attack (Harvard School of Health again).
As Lady Trumpington observes, this so-called ‘science’ is not merely based on ‘the highly imprecise and often spurious evidence of epidemiological research’, but is often contradicted by other research and is frequently about risks of minuscule magnitude. So too with passive smoking. The science is unclear and the additional risks it purports to demonstrate are often negligible. To base draconian legislation on such science is to lose all sense of proportion.
Among many other distinctions, including years of ministerial service in the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s, Lady Trumpington was mayor of Cambridge and steward of Folkestone race course. During the war she worked at Bletchley Park, where she found cigarettes a great aid to concentration when she was on night shift. She has a gift for plain speaking, and for seeing things from the point of view of a sensible member of the public. It is impossible to imagine her succumbing to the priggish fanaticism of the legislators in the Welsh Assembly and at Westminster who yearn to do us good by decreeing where we can and cannot smoke.
Yet in one respect Lady Trumpington disappointed me. When I put it to her that there is an overwhelming case for reducing the rates of duty on tobacco and alcohol, which bear with extreme severity on a large part of the working class and turn millions of people into law-breakers, she reacted with circumspection: ‘They’re very important from a taxation point of view. I think you’ve got to be a little bit careful.’ Oliver Letwin, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave a similarly cautious response last week, when questioned after delivering a speech to the Politeia think tank about the need to simplify the tax system. He could envisage no more than a 5 to 10 per cent cut in duty.
Lady Trumpington and Mr Letwin have not properly applied their great minds to this subject. They fail to see that the extortionate cost of drink and tobacco — extortionate, that is, to anyone on a small income who feels in need of these traditional pleasures — has encouraged a large part of our youth to turn to other, far more noxious drugs. Pubs close down while drug-dealers thrive. Many young lads and lasses also mock official disapproval of alcohol by indulging in the fashionable sport of binge-drinking in cavernous new clubs.
The high cost of smoking and drinking has led to smuggling on a stupendous scale: perhaps a third of the cigarettes smoked in this country, and 70 per cent of hand-rolled tobacco, have escaped UK duty. Law-abiding retailers have been placed in an impossible position. Is it too much to hope that when Mr Letwin has finished constructing his brilliant intellectual framework for a fairer tax system, he will win the next general election for the Conservatives by promising to reduce excise duties to the civilised levels found in our continental neighbours?