Cross-examination of witness at a recent PASC committee - uncorrected and slightly edited.
Paul Flynn: You say there have been no examples of political bias from the IEA. I have just read this remarkable document and I would suggest it is not a balanced document, but we will come back to that. The Atlantic Bridge: what lessons do you draw from the fact that the Atlantic Bridge was advised by the Charity Commission to end their activities?
Christopher Snowdon: I don’t know enough about the case, I am afraid.
Paul Flynn: Would you describe the Atlantic Bridge as having a “militant agenda”?
Christopher Snowdon: I don’t know anything about them.
Paul Flynn: I can fill you in on it. The Atlantic Bridge was an organisation dominated by prominent members of the Conservative Party and prominent members of the Tea Party tendency in America. They existed to promote things like the Iraq war, the Afghan war and other American agendas in Britain. They also imported brainwashed young people as researchers in this place, who were distributed to Conservative MPs and bored us all stiff on the Terrace with their extreme views. You are not aware of it.
Christopher Snowdon: Not really, no. Sorry.
Paul Flynn: Just on the question of “militant”: you describe certain organisations as having a “militant agenda” in the non‑political view of the IEA, and the militant groups are the Child Poverty Action Group, War on Want and Pesticide Action Network. Can you enlarge on why these people are militants?
Christopher Snowdon: Militant? Both War on Want and the Child Poverty Action Group are on the far left politically.
Paul Flynn: That is militant, is it?
Christopher Snowdon: I think that is a reasonable viewpoint.
Paul Flynn: You have a fixation about smoking and the smoking ban. You claim in your document, you pray in aid evidence, that taxes on alcohol are intrinsically unpopular with the population, and you would say the same about tobacco—that it was unpopular to ban tobacco. The evidence you offer is a report from the World Health Organisation in 2004. Are you happy that that is a rational basis on which to found an argument: the popularity of the smoking ban?
Christopher Snowdon: The World Health Organisation in that particular paper said that a tax on alcohol is intrinsically unpopular, as indeed taxes on most things tend to be unpopular with the people who purchase them. With the smoking issue, ASH themselves—Action on Smoking and Health—said in their financial accounts from some years back, which I quote in there, that it is very difficult to raise funds for the anti‑smoking cause, because it does not seem to be particularly popular.
Paul Flynn: The theme running through this book is that popularity should determine causes. If it is a popular cause, is should be enacted, and if it is an unpopular cause, it should not be supported. Could I just say that, if you had got figures more up to date than 2004, you would find that there was 56% support for the smoking ban in 2003 and 81% support in 2011? I can give you each individual year. Clearly this has been an example of a ban being imposed—obviously smokers objected—that then became very popular and very successful, which is absent from your document.
Christopher Snowdon: That is not relevant to my point, which is that, at the time the campaign was ongoing for the smoking ban, most people were against it. This is the argument I am making.
Paul Flynn: Do you think Government should just do those things that are popular, not the things that are necessarily right?
Christopher Snowdon: No; I am suggesting that Government should not fund lobby groups to campaign for causes that may be dearer to their hearts than they are to the public’s.
Paul Flynn: Does not Government have a duty to do good things in their simplest form? There are already hugely well founded organisations like Forest and others that are in the pay of the tobacco industry and are encouraging young people into this addiction that will lead to their early deaths. Does the Government not have a responsibility to ensure that another point of view is put forward and that is funded as well?
Christopher Snowdon: No, I don’t think so. What you are making there is basically what the European Commission’s argument is for funding all these environmental groups and, indeed, think tanks: to act as a counterweight to all the industrial lobbying that they receive. I do not think it is the place of Government to deliberately create front groups.
Paul Flynn: Would you agree there should be a balance between those who are lobbying for their own greed, their own profit, and those who are advocating the public good with health? If you are a lobbyist with a bottomless pocket, you can pay £250,000 and have a dinner with the Prime Minister to lobby him personally. Is that reasonable? In those circumstances, should the causes that are lobbying for the public good have some assistance?
Christopher Snowdon: No, because it is dishonest.
Paul Flynn: Is it not dishonest to buy an MP, and for countries like Azerbaijan and Israel to invite lots of MPs to their country, butter them up, pay for their hotels, pay their expenses and then bring them back and expect them to deliver? Is that dishonest?
Christopher Snowdon: I don’t know if it is dishonest. It is an attempt at persuasion. Even if it were dishonest, two wrongs would not make a right. If the Department of Health wishes to bring in a smoking ban, plain packaging for cigarettes or a ban on display, which it clearly does, then it should just get on and do it, rather than go through this charade of creating numerous front groups, using public money to finance campaigns that, on the face of it, do not look like Government‑funded campaigns. They look like civil society campaigns to try to persuade the public on a policy that has already been decided within the bureaucracy and has not been decided democratically or through reasoned debate. It has been decided on high, and then these policies are pushed to the people using what we would describe, if industry was involved, as front groups.
Chair: It is passing off organisations that purport to be independent but actually are agents of government.
Christopher Snowdon: Of the state, yes.
Paul Flynn: You make no apologies for the fact that the piece of research you quote is eight years old and you did not check the subsequent research.
Christopher Snowdon: No, because it is completely irrelevant that it is eight years old. The point being made there is that, at the time the Government was funding groups to campaign on their behalf, the policy was unpopular. My argument throughout this report is that many of the things that the Government did create groups to campaign for are unpopular. There would be no need to go through this charade if they were popular policies. If you have popular policies, you simply put them in your manifesto and then you bring them about.
Paul Flynn: In your ideal world, Mr Snowdon, because there was not a majority among smokers for a smoking ban, we should not have had a smoking ban. The great benefits that have resulted from that would not come about.
Christopher Snowdon: I personally hate the smoking ban and I wish it had never come in, so it does not have any great benefits for me. The fact that 80% of the people may approve of it still means that 20% of the people disapprove of it. Incidentally, 20% of the population are smokers, so we probably disagree on how beneficial the smoking ban has been.
Paul Flynn: Do we judge all Government policies on the effects they have on Mr Snowdon? Is this a rational argument?
Christopher Snowdon: No, we do not, but nor do we judge them on Mr Flynn. Whether the smoking ban is a good or bad thing is by the by. I am using it as an example to show a tendency that has been in government for the last 15 years.
Paul Flynn: You claimed quite erroneously in this book that people who advocate the smoking ban, and I would class myself amongst them, all intend to prohibit tobacco in the long run.
Christopher Snowdon: I do not say that.
Paul Flynn: I have never come across anyone anywhere else who wanted to prohibit the use of tobacco.
Christopher Snowdon: I don’t think I say anything about prohibition in this paper.
Paul Flynn: Yes, you do suggest it. You may have forgotten it, but could we just have a general view of prohibition? Prohibition of tobacco would set off the biggest crime wave this country has ever seen.
Chair: I am not sure this is relevant to the inquiry.
Paul Flynn: It is. It is relevant to whether Mr Snowdon is a competent witness. I think this is a really shoddy piece of work. The most remarkable thing about this document is that it was actually published.
Chair: By a charity.
Paul Flynn: By anyone.