Gordon Brown's rule is like America's Prohibition era...too much meddling


Last updated at 00:58 10 January 2008

Part of my holiday reading (like everybody else, I had more time off than I knew what to do with) was a newly published book by Michael A. Lerner called Dry Manhattan, about America's disastrous Jazz Age Prohibition experiment, as it affected New York.

I'll drink to that.

While I have read a fair number of books about the Prohibition era, I had never quite realised, until Mr Lerner pointed it out, that the notorious 18th Amendment, which killed off the saloons and brought the likes of Al Capone to life, was the first time the American Constitution had ever been used to limit, rather than protect (as in the right to bear arms and all that) the personal liberties of American citizens.

smoking ban

So why, as I read the riveting story of a so-called "noble experiment" that lasted through the Roaring Twenties into 1933, was I reminded of our own dear Gordon Brown?

Well, I suppose, because like others of his ilk he toys with the idea of a British Constitution but will never deliver one.

And if he did, it would contain far more Thou Shalt Nots than Thou Shalts.

Our equivalent of Prohibition, insofar as we have one, is, of course, the Great Smoking Ban.

Prohibition Lite, you could call it.

Not that this can be blamed directly on Gordon - he must have been out at the time - but Brown's Bunnies, the successors to Blair's Babes, are in it up to their fluffy ears, demanding more and more restrictions on smoking wherever they find it.

It surprised me that there was so little resistance to this draconian law, not only here but in France and Ireland of all places.

I suppose the explanation is that even the most nicotine-tinged smokers realise that the habit isn't doing them a lot of good and welcome the chance of knocking it on the head.

That as it may, the smoking ban has brought about great changes in British pub life.

It has speeded the rise and rise of the gastro-pub - a contradiction in terms, surely - and the demise of the old flat-cap public bar.

Away from licensed premises, it has encouraged a tendency towards nosey-parkerism, rather foreign to our tradition of live and let live.

Living and let living is not really in Gordon's vocabulary.

Change is his middle name - even if it is only small change.

Going back to Mr Lerner's book, I find that Prohibition in New York was accompanied by a ban on smoking on the subway, a ban on women smoking in hotel dining rooms, and a ban on walking on the grass in Central Park.

Just like here, give them a mile and they'll take whatever they can get.

But just suppose we did one day get a proper British Constitution with a string of important amendments dealing with our rights - including, at a guess, our right not to bear arms, unless we happen to be a police marksman in pursuit of an innocent person wrongly suspected of being a terrorist.

Gordon's latest ramblings on the subject of the NHS could be cobbled into an amendment guaranteeing each citizen the right to consume five portions of fruit or veg a day, thus reducing hospital costs and releasing funds for educating the public in wellness, which in turn would release much-needed beds for the genuinely ill. Or they soon will be genuinely ill if they stay in hospital long enough.

Harriet Harman's latest brainstorm, I should say brainwave, demanding equal rights for fathers to stay at home looking after the baby should certainly be incorporated, as should an adjacent amendment forbidding said fathers from smoking in their own homes.

Compulsory voting is a cause dear to many of the Brown Bunnies' hearts, so that should certainly go in, provided it is accompanied by funding for educating illiterate citizens on which way to vote.

But these are merely ideas for a party which habitually comes up with 50 ideas a day before breakfast.

I'm sure Gordon Brown and his Bunnies could produce a Constitution with more amendments than you could shake a stick at.

All it needs then is an army of uniformed wardens patrolling the streets - with, of course, rights of entry - and we would have a Constitution to be proud of.

Is this the land of the free or what?

• Quaint they ain't

Although you would not have guessed it from BBC TV's output yesterday, which seemed to think Bush's Middle East jaunt the big news of the day, we are riveted by the preliminaries to the American presidential election - in particular, the developing seesaw contest between Obama and Hillary.

No longer do we scoff and snigger at our transatlantic cousins' convoluted way of going about whom to choose as their next disaster of a President.

This time round we are looking at this bizarre scene with what to me looks like envy.

To be patronising about the American way of doing these things - as some commentators still are - is to miss the point.

No longer do we ask "What the hell is going on over there?" but, increasingly, and wistfully, "So why can't we do it like that?"

We have a non-elected Prime Minister who funked a General Election and whose first act was to refuse us the Euro-referendum promised in his own party's manifesto.

And we call the American voting system quaint?