Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Zealots have shifted the scale on our liberal society

Horse trading: Ruby Walsh
Horse trading: Ruby Walsh

On screen, our hero can blow away 500 bad guys," Sam Mendes (who directed the Bond movie Skyfall) told an audience of aspiring directors, "but if he smokes one cigarette, you're in deep s***."

I read this in a gossip column the other day and it reinforced my belief that today's puritans are as much of a threat as their predecessors – even if they are secular rather than religious and their targets are different.

This item was followed by one about the jockey, Ruby Walsh, who answered a question about a horse's death at Cheltenham with, "It's sad, but horses are animals ... you can replace a horse. You can't replace a human being." This brought denunciations and death threats from animal activists.

Then we recalled then foreign secretary Ernest Bevin clasping Lady Diana Cooper in a bear hug as she showed him to his room in the British embassy in Paris, where her husband was ambassador. To his request for "one sweet hour of bliss", she replied, "Darling, you're absolutely adorable, but not as a bedfellow."

In olden days, the clergy puffed away themselves, they'd have thought Ruby Walsh was sensible and they'd have applauded Lady Diana's way of dealing with male passions. Nowadays, the rights of smokers are under constant attack, Walsh's remark is stoking up the rage of those who want horse-racing banned and Lady Diana would be encouraged to lodge a criminal complaint against Bevin for sexual assault.

Tony Benn died last week. It's less than a decade since I sat in a church listening to his odd opinions and watching him light his pipe. I did think it impolite of him to smoke sitting below the altar, and, reluctantly, I've come to agree with quite a few of the restrictions on smoking in public places, but I deplore the rapacity of the zealots.

On the current spate of celebrity prosecutions on charges of various kinds of sexual assault, mostly far in the past. William Roache, who is 81, was cleared of all charges; DJ Dave Lee Travis (68) was found not guilty of 12, but is to be retried on two. Many think there's an unsavoury witch-hunt going on.

Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman is someone who never lets up in her pursuit of a virtuous society. She disapproves of prostitution, even if the adults involved are happy about their transaction and has long been prominent in a campaign to criminalise the purchase of sex.

Yet she has been suffering intense embarrassment over allegations that, from 1978-1982, as legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty), she did nothing to break its links with the Paedophile Information Exchange, which wanted to reduce the age of consent to four.

A failing of evangelical puritans is that it rarely registers that tolerance of those you think wrong can be a virtue.

Following complaints from opponents of gay marriage, outraged at being called homophobic, Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, has expressed worry that "possibly as a counter-reaction to the permissive society, a combination of political correctness and moral reaction appears to be developing," which he fears may spill over into liberal censoriousness.

"As has been said on more than one occasion, freedom only to speak inoffensively is a freedom not worth having."

He's dead right. I'll go further. Let Bond smoke a cigarette, though obviously only if it's necessary for the plot.

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