Orwell foresaw it with his Ministry of Truth and, in this new topsy-turvy world, it has come to pass. Words have become mirror-images of themselves. Thus, ‘liberal’ values – with their trigger-warnings and victim culture – now seem to embody censorship, while the safe-space mob labels anyone who exercises his freedom of expression to disagree as “far right”, phobic in some manner, or, in the most extreme cases, as ‘Nazis’. But it hasn’t stopped there. Trump voters, Brexiteers, libertarians – even anarchists – are throwing ‘Nazi’ right back in their accusers’ faces, like peaceful protesters confronted by the riot squad.
Take the ‘debranding’ of cigarettes in the UK. On top of the health warnings and shop-rules about closed cabinets, from next May, the packs will be stripped of any consumer appeal: plain-wrapped, with all brand-names reduced to small, uniform capital letters. Already there’s a website backed by Public Health England – breathe2025 –which rewards people for ‘spotting’ the new packs as they begin to come on to the market. When the development was reported in a local Oxford paper, one reader called it ‘health fascism’ – and not without reason.
Apart from murdering people, what has always united fascist and autocratic regimes is their interference in the private lives of those whom they govern. And with plain packaging, the government has taken another step in that direction. No one minds them discouraging smoking for health reasons – the clean-breathing Hitler would have agreed – but to interfere with the market for confirmed smokers, to enforce semantic confusion on them, to hobble their manufacturers and inconvenience their suppliers, betrays the same streak of ‘we know best’ that is now being questioned all over the world.
Sure, it’s not a matter of great consequence (and in Britain, the policy won’t be rolled back, whatever the unintended consequences). But great oaks from little acorns grow. How long before the state makes similar moves on sugar and alcohol? How long before you enter a pub, only to discover the pumps are hidden from sight? (And – forget beer mats – the only branding allowed on glasses is the name in regulation small capitals?) How long before the spirits are kept in a safe and you have to ask for a list at the bar? How long before the interference extends to burgers and sweets and school lunchboxes?
Big Brother is determined that we put out our butts. Perhaps, now, he could finally butt out?