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Of Fox Hunting, Smoking and Civil Disobedience

28/12/2012

Fox hunting and smoking – two pastimes not normally indulged in simultaneously – have been in the news in Britain and Bulgaria, in that order, in recent days. And for the same reason – actual or threatened ‘civil disobedience’. An expression usually taken to mean a recognised grouping of citizens openly flouting a particular law that they don’t like and don’t want to obey.
In the UK, fox hunting was banned in the dying days of the last Labour government, back in 2005. Or, more precisely, banned was fox hunting using dogs. You can legally go hunting foxes with a high-powered sporting rifle – assuming of course possession of the necessary firearms licence and hunting permit – and you can even do it on horseback with your pals, if that’s your want. What you can’t legally do is set a pack of beagles or other canines on a found fox, have them run it to earth and then rip it to shreds before you, for your viewing pleasure.
And, on the first of June of 2012, Bulgaria joined a growing list of countries to impose a full smoking ban in enclosed workplaces. Nothing unusual per se, but Bulgaria also has one of the highest – possibly the highest – smoking rates in the European Union. The main target of the ban was of course the hospitality trade – restaurants, bars and clubs. When the ban kicked in, smokers – and establishment proprietors – weren’t too bothered. It was early summer – and a gorgeous summer it proved to be – and the vast majority of patrons preferred anyway to be outside. In enclosed gardens and footpath cafe extensions across the country, Bulgarian smokers and their non-smoking friends and family – often in a distinct minority – carried on as they’d always done. Winter seemed a long way away. And it was widely thought that by then the ban would be relaxed, back to the pre-existing regime of segregated – and in most instances largely symbolic – non-smoking areas.
That hasn’t happened and winter is now well entrenched. The full smoking ban is manifestly hurting now that even the gas heaters in the dubiously legal semi-detached marquees aren’t enough to afford outside seating, eating, drinking – and smoking – in anything approaching comfort.
When a sufficient number of citizens feel sufficiently aggrieved about a prohibition of an activity they cherish, civil disobedience is always in prospect. Earning income without paying tax is arguably a case in point. It’s something of a national pastime in Bulgaria – even though there’s a flat rate of income tax of just 10 percent – and by all accounts remains alive and well in Britain also.
But tax avoidance is done surreptitiously – there is no overt movement of tax dodgers in either country or indeed in any other.
A better example would be the anti-conscription movement which became widespread in Vietnam War-era America. Young men who received their call-up and who didn’t want to fight – possibly die – in Vietnam would gather together and publicly burn their draft cards. With uneven levels of societal approbation: the Vietnam War polarised American society.
So it is with Britain’s fox hunting and Bulgaria’s smoking bans. A week before Christmas, a prominent hunt was successfully prosecuted by the RSPCA for breaching the ban – the chase and the kill had been recorded on video by an undercover agent – but on Boxing Day record numbers turned out for hunts across Britain, far beyond the resources of animal rights campaigners to police. Dogs were out in force, purportedly hunting down only pre-applied fox scent but the British media reported widespread flouting of the ban on their quarrying of the real thing.
And amidst calls for the ban to be repealed, the government said no. A spokesman observed that it was pointless putting to Parliament a proposed repeal of existing law which had little chance of success.
This wasn’t the position taken in Bulgaria in early December, when a small group of MPs were permitted to introduce a bill to relax the full smoking ban. Plainly the ruling party – known as ‘GERB’ (an acronym which roughly translates as ‘Citizens for a European Bulgaria’) – had acquiesced and indeed the prime minister told the media he thought the ban should be reconsidered, his health minister’s vigorous opposition notwithstanding.
But against the expectations of its proponents – and their backers in the hospitality and tobacco industries – the proposal was unanimously defeated in the Health select committee. A separate bill to like effect was also rejected, albeit by a majority, in the Economy committee.
Which prompted the Bulgarian Association of Hoteliers and Restaurant Owners to assert that its members would introduce a period of civil disobedience, starting 15 December and running for several weeks – during which ashtrays would reappear and smokers would not be molested by management or staff – to demonstrate what they claim is the fiscal cost of the ban. Seemingly the Association, or many of its members, got cold feet and the campaign petered out before it started. But over Christmas the media carried stories – complete with video evidence – of the smoking ban being flouted in various towns across Bulgaria.
But undoubtedly with a good deal of ambivalence amongst the wider population, especially non-smokers frequenting such establishments and being expected to turn a blind eye to transgressions by both proprietors and smoking patrons. Something different about Bulgaria – and Bulgarians – in this regard is that there is unlikely to be the vociferous expression of outrage in such a situation that could be expected with an equivalent scenario in England, say, or New Zealand. Societal norms there are such that for a smoker to light up in a pub would be greeted first with disbelief, followed very quickly by howls of indignation. Bulgarians – much more used to inhaling second-hand tobacco smoke – and keeping shtum in contentious circumstances – are much more likely to keep their thoughts to themselves.
But it seems clear that, both in Britain with hunting with hounds and in Bulgaria with smoking in bars, there is widespread public support for the bans. In both countries, proponents of the banned activity are vocal in their contempt for and ridicule of the bans but should they push too far in their ‘civil disobedience’ they risk mobilising a hitherto silent majority whose opposition, once harnessed by the ‘anti’ faction, will pre-empt any future political accommodation of their dissatisfaction.

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