5 October 2023

Rishi’s prohibitionist lunge is proof that his Party has forgotten itself


What is it that defines a conservative? Benjamin Disraeli might have emphasised noblesse oblige, while Margaret Thatcher may have stressed the promotion of competition. Given how many iterations conservatism has had, it’s not an easy question to answer. 

However, what it certainly is not, is the unnecessary expansion of the state and degradation of individual choice. Despite this, the Prime Minister found himself in breach of both of these principles in his speech at this year’s Conservative Party Conference. 

In addition to scrapping the Northern Leg of HS2 and flirting with the abolition of A Levels, Sunak announced his intention to implement a phased ban of cigarettes by gradually increasing the age at which people are allowed to buy them. If you think you’ve heard this one before, you’d be right. 

In December of last year, former New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern made waves by banning any Kiwi born after 2010 from purchasing a pack of cigarettes, or durries, as our antipodean cousins call them. When the policy was announced it was widely – and rightly – rubbished. It was regarded as characterising a worrying new trend of statism with a human face, the likes of which can also be seen in Canada and Scotland.

Concerning though the ideological implications are, what is even more baffling is the complete void in historical understanding that policymakers have when it comes to prohibition. Be it alcohol, drugs, prostitution or any other vice you can think of, attempts to ban them out of existence have consistently failed.

And this latest wheeze will be no different. What will likely arise from the proposed ban is a lucrative and potentially violent black market for cigarettes. Even with our current strict regulations, the UK’s illicit tobacco industry is a booming one, and between April 2021 and March 2022, over 1.35bn illegal fags were seized by authorities. It doesn’t take Nostradamus to predict how this might grow in the face of more prohibition.

And the problems with this plan don’t stop there. What the Prime Minister was trying to do in yesterday’s speech was advertise himself as a no-nonsense, straight-talking conservative. The sort of leader who is prepared to define what a woman is and is up for making tough long-term economic decisions. But the absurdity of his proposal obscures his claims to seriousness. 

Under Rishi’s proposal, it would be illegal for any child turning 14 or under this year to ever buy tobacco. This means that, in 20 years time in an off licence near you, there will be a shopkeeper selling a packet of fags to a 35 year old while turning away a punter a year younger. This is the sort of scenario that would be laughable in a drunken conversation with your mates, but in a policy laid out by the Prime Minister its dystopian.

Policies with outcomes such as this actively undermine what has made the Conservative Party the most successful electoral force the world has ever seen. This does not make them look like a safe pair of hands, but rather an outfit which at best, has run out of ideas, and at worst, doesn’t care whether it wins or loses. 

If what many are predicting is true, and the Tories lose next year’s election, they must come together in opposition and remind themselves what it means to be a Conservative. This will involve looking to the past and taking note of what has failed and what has succeeded. What they are likely to find is that their winning formula has usually been a shrewd combination of fiscal prudence, sensible social policy and the promotion of individual freedom and personal responsibility. Rishi’s prohibitionist lunge fails on all of the above, and if more policies like this are to come, then his Party will too.

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Joseph Dinnage is Deputy Editor of CapX