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Stephen Williams is not a liberal

Stephen Williams may be a member of the Liberal party but he is no liberal. Yesterday he wrote a piece for Lib Dem Voice championing the nanny state with the bizarre piece entitled, chillinglyHow to damage tobacco brands“. Why would any liberal (and especially a member of Parliament) living in the free world wish to damage any legal company’s brand?

I have pretty much said my piece over on the comments page so I won’t repeat it here. What I did think worthy of mention was the reaction to the piece in the comments section. Overwhelming  the contributors were against what Stephen Williams MP had to say – some puzzled, some angry and some downright apoplectic. Could it be that liberalism is finding it’s voice? By jove I think it might!

Here are a few choice comments – go read the full conversation over on LDV….

“Shameful from a so-called liberal politician”

“What is it with you people and your irresistible urge to meddle?”

“There appears to be a pathological inability to leave people alone to live their lives how they choose”.

“Surely there are for better ways for Mr Williams to be spending his time”

“Open displays of tobacco in shops that make smoking seem like a normal part of everyday life…Well that will be because it is! I’m not a Mark Littlewood/FOREST type fundie but stuff like that could drive me that way!” (Updated due to author request)

stuff like that could drive me that way”

“’I’m afraid Stephen Williams’s proposal fits in the category of “something must be done””

“This is terrible -stupid idea – I don’t know one person who smokes because the packaging looks good”

“Wars have been fought to give people freedom of choice and not be dictated to by a governing body”

“I’m very unimpressed by this trendy streak of statist authoritarianism that certain Lib Dems seem rather proud of”

“Never been a smoker and never want to be but if the party got behind this kind of policy I’d be right out the door”

“Wasn’t the “Liberal” in the party name enough of a clue?”

Well said, one and all.

Ps…. Stephen Williams is the Lib Dem MP for Bristol West and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health. The anti-smoking group ASH  provides administrative support to the group. Draw what conclusions you will.


Stephen Williams was kind enough to respond to my comment over on LDV…

“Angela – you don’t provide any evidence for your assertion that the indoor smoking ban has caused the decline of local pubs. Many pubs have flourished since 2007 as they are now more attractive places for the majority of the population to socialise. I now eat and drink in pubs that I wouldn’t have considered entering 4 years ago. Pubs that have adapted to the change by offering good food and activities have thrived. Pubs that did not respond to changed circumstances have not. The latter are at more risk from ridiculously cheap alcohol in supermarkets….which is one reason why I am in favour of minimum pricing for units of alcohol. And yes responsible governments do have to act on obesity – rising levels of diabetes and heart disease are hardly causes for liberal celebration

and just to really ruin your day (:-) perhaps you’d like to read another posting on my own blog: “

My reply:

“Dear Stephen – thank you taking time from your busy schedule to reply to my comment..

But actually .. It’s not “my day” you are ruining – it’s “my party”

27 Responses to “Stephen Williams is not a liberal”

  1. Stephen Williams Says:

    I’m flattered but bemused by your attack on my Liberal credentials. Even the most ardent Gladstonian would not have been surprised to be told that one of his 21st century successors had a concern for child health. Gay rights might have been pushing their boundaries but I’ve got a pretty impeccable Liberal record there too….

  2. Tom Papworth Says:

    Being disingenuous again, Stephen?

    If it was really children’s health you were concerned about, you would be trying to introduce a ban on branding cigarette packets, which was the subject of the above article and has nothing to do with protecting children.

    It took me less than a second to think of an alternative policy that would be more effective at protecting children than the ban on branding: if, instead, you had proposed that cigarettes could only be sold in off licences, public houses and other establishments with an exclusively adult clientele, your Helen Lovejoy act might just wash.

    Mind you, I ought to be careful. I don’t want to start giving you ideas!

  3. Tom Papworth Says:

    BTW: It’s interesting that you should seek to crowbar gay rights into this. It reminds me of Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign, which organized opposition to the movement for lesbian and gay rights.

    Perhaps, echoing her words, you will be arguing that “Smokers cannot reproduce, so they must recruit.”

  4. Angela Harbutt Says:


    Thanks again for engaging in the discussion..

    If this is genuinely about protecting children and your ideas surrounded education and distribution I would not be questioning them.

    There simply is no evidence that plain packaging is going to help one tiny bit in reducing smoking amongst kids.. hip cigarette tins might be the next must-have fashion item – but that’s it.

    If you had suggested that the UK wait to assess the outcome in Australia – evdience-based research that I thought we libeals agreed with on drug policy then I would thought there stands a fair and open-minded man.

    But you seem willing to trample over millions of peoples rights to protect the rights of others – when there are far more effective means to doing so without limiting the freedoms of others. That is not liberal Stephen.

  5. Hywel Says:

    “..stuff like that could drive me that way”

    Amusing that my quote is the only one to be edited down by the LV crew. Maybe someone who looks at my full comment on Lib Dem voice could suggest why that might have been :-)

  6. Tom Papworth Says:

    @Hywel: I think describing Anegla as “The LV crewe” is something of an exaggeration. There are other people involved, but this post was hers.

    Having said that, I really don’t see what your objection is. For the sake of other readers, I will cite your full comment, which read:

    “Open displays of tobacco in shops that make smoking seem like a normal part of everyday life…”

    Well that will be because it is! I’m not a Mark Littlewood/FOREST type fundie but stuff like that could drive me that way!

    What part of this do you think Angela needed to include for the sake of full disclosure?

  7. Simon Rigelsford Says:

    I think “not a liberal” is what we really need to emphasise here. For a liberal, whether banning product packaging would actually reduce smoking doesn’t matter – it’s just something that government shouldn’t do.

    Here is Stephen Williams’ argument:
    P1. Smoking is more likely to lead to disease and early death than not smoking.
    P2. Banning the “promotion” of cigarettes by removing tobacco corporations’ ability to package their product will reduce smoking.
    C. Therefore, while people should still be free to smoke, we should ban the promotion of cigarettes.

    P2 is plausible, but even if it was proven beyond all doubt to be true, for a liberal, it wouldn’t justify C.

    To give another example of similar premises not justifying non-liberal conclusions, here is an argument that you will find in the BNP manifesto:
    P1. Homosexual sex is more likely to lead to disease and early death than heterosexual sex.
    P2. Banning the “promotion” of homosexuality by media corporations will mean that less people will have homosexual sex.
    C. Therefore, while people should still be free to do what they want in their own bedroom, we should ban the promotion of homosexuality.

    In this case, I think that P2 is not very plausible, but even if it was… surely no liberal could possibly argue that “C” would follow.

  8. Tom Papworth Says:

    @Simon Rigelsford: “I think “not a liberal” is what we really need to emphasise here”

    I think this is spot on. Too many of the comments on LDV focussed upon whether the legislation would work.

    What we should be focusing upon is whether the legislation is justified in a free society.

    If we were willing to introduce measures that improved child safety even if they were not liberal, we’d introduce a 9am curfew. Mind you, I’d better be careful. That’s another of my example policies that might just get taken up!

  9. Chris Says:

    Like many authoritarians Stephen tries to hide his repressive tendencies behind an apparent desire to protect vulnerable members of society. It is not a new idea:

    “The state must declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people. As long as the government is perceived as working for the benefit of the children, the people will happily endure almost any curtailment of liberty and almost any deprivation”

    The quote is from Mein Kampf. Anybody thinking of citing Godwin should grow up and understand it was never Godwin’s intent to prevent contextually appropriate reference to one of the most significant figures in modern history. Those who twist his words to do so practice a childish form of censorship.

    I believe that this quote is particularly timely bearing in mind the growing tendency of militant health activists to use children in their campaigns. Too young to smoke or to vote but old enough to be used in political campaigns?

    More specifically, my points are that it is possible to defend almost anything if you claim your actions are in the interests of the children and that that defence does not necessarily make anyone liberal.

    Stephen seems prepared to defend his credentials through his support for minorities. Perhaps he could enlighten us with his liberal views on the sizeable minority of people who smoke in the UK? Does he not feel that we could use modern technology and more compassionate legislation to better accommodate them within our society? This would seem appropriate as his much vaunted smoking ban has failed to make an impact on the number of people smoking in the UK. In fact it doesn’t seem to have had any impact on anything very much.

    I stopped voting for the party because of people like Stephen. I do hope to vote for a liberal party one day in the future. His comments on alcohol and obesity support the hypothesis that this will certainly not end with tobacco.

  10. Timothy Cox Says:

    ‘The latter are at more risk from ridiculously cheap alcohol in supermarket’

    I’m sure it is cheap on an MP’s salary. Though that doesn’t explain why it’s subsidised in the bars in the Lords and Commons?

  11. Hywel Says:

    Just thought it was amusing that my mention of Mark Littlewood (and my distancing myself from him) was edited out of my comment.

  12. Leslie K. Clark Says:

    Why don’t the likes of Stephen Williams et al just come out and ban smoking altogether since it is so obviously such a threat to the children. Just think of the children!?!

    Or, is the real reason why nobody of note proposes a complete ban have anything to do with the £11.1bn tax revenue from tobacco products?

  13. Tom Papworth Says:

    @Hywel: I suspect that your reference to Mark was omitted because it was not relevant to the discussion on branding of cigarettes.

    @Leslie: The real reason the antis don’t call for an outright ban straight away is that they know they’d be vilified. They have learnt from past failures and now adopt the salami-slice approach.

  14. Tom Papworth Says:

    @Hywel: I might add that distancing yourself from Mark is possibly an odd concept for a liberal. Even if you don’t support his economic views (just guessing!), you may find his pro-Europeanism, his opposition to ID cards and the database state, and his previous work for Liberty to be worthy of support.

    People often say that liberalism is a broad church. I find that even individual liberals have a wide mix of views, and it’s rare that one disagrees with every one of those views.

  15. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Hywel – apologies if I quoted you “out of context” I thought I understood the context. I have corrected – see post. My error – not intended… give it a minute and it will be there in full.

  16. Foregone Conclusion Says:

    I disagree with Stephen Williams. But do you and your commenters think that denying that he’s a liberal, calling him disingenuous, linking his cause to homophobia (twice), calling him an authoritarian and comparing him to Adolf Hitler, and implying that he wants a total ban is a good way of persuading him and other people of good will of your point of view?

  17. Foregone Conclusion Says:

    Also, just out of curiosity, is Progressive Vision funded by any of the tobacco producers/retailers? In the name of transparency and all that…

  18. Chris Says:

    @Foregone conclusion

    With due respect, I did not compare Stephen with Adolph Hitler. I used the Mein Kampf reference specifically to emphasize the persuasive nature of the “the children” argument that Stephen used in his defence and to point out that it is not necessarily a valid defence in the context of this debate.

    Hitler recognised children as a powerful lever for persuading people to forgo liberty and as liberals we should be rightly careful in our treatment of modern day arguments that use that same approach. If we don’t then we fail to learn an important historical lesson and that is simply foolish.

    If Stephen chooses to further defend his position then I will gladly engage in debate without further prejudice but at present, I fail to see anything liberal in his position or his defence of it. As I said in my original post, Stephen is one of the reasons why I no longer vote for the party so whatever your views on my arguments I hope that you will at least recognise my sincerity.

  19. Jack Hughes Says:

  20. Angela Harbutt Says:

    Dear Foregone Conclusion

    Each blogger on LV is responsible for their own words/opinions. None of our regular contributors posts are checked or vetted. No-one is paid to write a post. We often surprise/delight/confuse each other but rarely before they have been published. We didn’t discuss this post – or any other – before it went live. It’s mine.

    Occassionally we have guest posts. We don’t prescribe what they write about – they submit and we publish if we like it.

    RE the comments section- No control there either – ANYONE can comment on this page – we don’t vet or approve any comment. It comes as it comes. Regular visitors will note that LV bloggers have on many an occassion debated a topic amongst ourselves on the comments page – not always agreeing!

    So I can only answer for my own words. You may disagree with my approach/views but I am happy to stand by them.

    Concerning Progressive Vision. LV structure’s quite simple: the people shown on the About Us page do Liberal Vision’s work unpaid and cover all costs associated with running it. No one outside this group has any influence over its activities. Progressive Vision was the facilitator to getting Liberal Vision off the ground. I have no idea what Progressive Vision is doing or with whom.

    I hope this addresses your points.

  21. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    It would be more accurate to say that Stephen Williams is not a Libertarian. The words Liberal and libertarian are 2 separate words for a good reason.

  22. Angela Says:

    Geoffrey –

    This particular debate is kind of over really…. (penultimate comment was, after all, 3 days ago – maybe you were away?)….. But thanks for the late comment – it’s interesting you are no longer defending Stephen as a liberal.. simply arguing he is not libertarian….(hmmm bet that will work WONDERS at the ballot box!)

    If you want to go argue Stephen’s case (if I were Stephen I would probably decline your kind offer to be honest)…

    Over there Stephen is arguing (as far as I can tell)- that he can assault the motorist because their liberties have already been eroded – and they are fair game – nice one! Fortunately it looks like he is getting even less joy on that one than he did on Lib Dem voice re banning legit companies from showing their own trademarks..

  23. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    I think you should stop being rude towards people you disagree with.
    John Stuart Mill supported free speech on the grounds that different opinions are beneficial even if they are wrong;
    “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” ~John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859

    So the question is do you want to have a debate or do you prefer engaging in a slanging match?

    Apparently my last message broke some rule that I never knew existed and in any case I thought libertarians did not like rules. And then you argue some point that I did not make but no doubt you wish I did just to make it easy for you, and finally I make no claims for speaking on behalf of anyone else except myself.
    All these points are entirely irrelevant to the point I originally made.

  24. Angela Says:

    Hi Geffrey – was not intending to be rude – just pointing out that the discussion had moved to another site. .. (assumed you had been away and not noticed).

    If you think I was being rude by saying that I believe Stephen would probably prefer that you didn’t seek to defend him – it’s because I think your arguments are inconsistent and not very liberal.

    Cheers , Angela.

  25. Tom Papworth Says:


    I think you need to distinguish between people criticising one another (as Angela was criticising your comment) and the use of force to prevent free expression, which was Mill’s concern, but was certainly not what Angela was doing.

    As for “The words Liberal and libertarian [being] 2 separate words for a good reason”, the reason is that the word ‘liberal’ has been co-opted by those whose beliefs and actions are in fact the complete opposite of liberalism to such an extent that some liberals (particularly in America) have given up on the word and sought to come up with a new one to describe that same set of beliefs that Mill was so ardently defending.

    It is in that traditional sense, rather than in the perverted sense that is used by some people today (of whom I suspect you are one), that Angela is judging Stephen’s liberalism.

  26. Grammar Police Says:

    What depressed me on both sides of the social/LV divide is how quickly each side rushes to shout “YOU’RE NOT A REAL LIBERAL” at the other. It’s pretty pathetic actually.

  27. Rich Says:

    May I say, although the quote “I’m very unimpressed by this trendy streak of statist authoritarianism that certain Lib Dems seem rather proud of” is from me, I’m not a fan of this constant internecine bickering between the perceived ‘left’ and ‘right’ of this party, or its alternative framings. I disagree with Stephen Williams on the issue of Tobacco, I tend to revert to my old fashioned inner liberal on this issue, but think he is an excellent Member of Parliament.