Protesters had travelled from Cumbria, North Yorkshire and even further afield to make themselves heard, making my own five hour round trip from the south coast look like a short commute. Some had stayed overnight in the town to make sure they were around when things kicked off at 11 am. And all at their own expense, on a Saturday and in torrential rain.
As for the residents, many of them popped into the pub from time to time to show support for their visitors. They seem bemused by the proposal and embarrassed by their councillor, who may be called to account at the next election. A rather splendid article in today's Guardian gives a flavour of the atmosphere:
Bartlett is well known for his zero tolerance views. He's a kind of mayor Giuliani for Milton Keynes or to put it another way "a total twat". So said Stony resident Gina Sherwood. "I think it's absurd. There are too many people against it. I don't know one person who is for it."
The head of the local business association called for the proposal to be quashed and expressed disappointment that the town's efforts to pull in tourists were being undermined by Bartlett's mania—although today was clearly an exception. Needless to say, the man himself did not put in an appearance and if anyone in Stony Stratford agrees with him, they did not make their presence felt. And if, as the councillor has claimed, Stony Stratford has a problem with cigarette litter, somebody had helpfully cleared it up before we arrived. The streets were as spotless as they presumably were on the day Bartlett was forced to travel 10 miles to Milton Keynes for his publicity shot.
Several speakers pointed out this is not an issue of health, but liberty—a point underlined by the large number of nonsmokers in attendance, including Roger Helmer MEP who pledged to smoke a cigarette in the streets of Stony if the anti-smokers got their way. I doubt that will be necessary. Such has been the public interest that the vote has been moved from the council office to the (much larger) church and it seems likely that Bartlett will lose by a wide margin. Perhaps that would have always been the outcome. The people of Stony Stratford seem a sensible lot and are not prone to intolerance or extremism. Bartlett is the cuckoo in the nest. As a Stony resident said in the Guardian article:
"This is just victimising people. Can't we just be non-smokers? Why do we have to be anti-smokers?"
A perceptive comment, that. The anti-smoking movement relies on a small handful of obsessives claiming to represent all non-smokers. They don't, they never have and they never will. Normal people do not wish to create division, segregation and 'denormalisation' in society (one of the placards today read 'Denormalise Councillor Bartlett'). ASH and Bartlett represent non-smokers about as much as David Koresh represented Christianity. Claiming that there is a war that must be fought is the great deception that the zealots must commit to fulfill their long-term goal of prohibition. More and more people are beginning to see through that lie.
No doubt similar proposals will be raised by unhinged councillors and attention-seeking MPs in the future. With a few tweaks here and a few bogus health scares there, outdoor smoking bans could yet become palatable to voters in the least liberal parts of the country. They are, after all, 'the next logical step'. But, for now, the sane majority looks likely to prevail. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Bartlett.