’John Carlisle is one of the most offensive men in the House of
Commons, with a long track record of repugnant remarks,’ said Alex
Salmond, Scottish National Party leader, last October.
’Racist, misogynist, insensitive,’ echoes the chorus of politicians who
have lined up to condemn the former right-wing Tory MP for Luton North,
who made headlines for his support of South Africa back in the days of
So would you choose this guy as your top public relations man with the
brief to fight your corner against the threat of an advertising ban from
the new Labour government?
The Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association did.
Since August this year Carlisle has been the TMA’s executive director of
industry affairs, after quitting politics before Labour romped home at
the last election, taking his old seat with them.
His appointment raised a few eyebrows. With Tony Blair’s new government
sailing on a tide of popular reform and determined to clamp down on
tobacco promotion, was it sensible to pick as your public face a man who
has the political correctness of Bernard Manning after six pints of
’The TMA wanted someone who was upfront, used to controversy and with a
Good choice then. This, after all, is the man who talked of ’revenge’
after Millwall football fans had wrecked Luton’s ground in the late 80s,
who tried to ’understand’ apartheid and more recently accused Dunblane
parents of ’hysteria’ over hand guns. Oh, and he’s also a
In the flesh, Carlisle, 55, isn’t the abrasive street-fighter one
I was warmly welcomed into his office near St James Park. Behind the
desk is a picture of two cherubic angels (a closer look reveals one is
holding a fag).
Sitting beneath them is a rather charming fellow who listens patiently
and has a cheery anecdote for all occasions.
Carlisle is happy because he relishes his new role. ’I’ve got a proper
job at last,’ he quips to a former colleague on the phone.
Yet a few minutes earlier, as our photographer was setting up, he was
advising a colleague on how to stall the moral crusade by health
secretary Tessa Jowell.
Carlisle admits it’s not an easy job. ’Tobacco companies need to be
aggressive if they’re to hold their ground.’
It sounds like he hasn’t mellowed. ’If anything the move has sharpened
me; I was getting a bit dulled in politics. I do have to curb excesses
of language as I’m subject to libel laws,’ he smiles wryly.
Carlisle says he suffers no pangs of conscience in promoting an activity
which Action on Smoking and Health says kills 120,000 British adults a
year, half of them in their middle age. ’I sleep soundly at night. I’m
simply defending adults’ freedom of choice to use a legitimate
He admits he regrets some of his past outbursts. He revises this to say
he regrets their ’interpretation’. ’This is true about Dunblane. I was
just trying to bring a bit of reality to the situation.’
Now Carlisle is facing the reality of a ban on most forms of tobacco
marketing. What can he hope to achieve? ’There are two chinks of
One is direct mail; we must be allowed to communicate with adults. The
second is sponsorship, where the government is beginning to waver. They
realise the strength of our relationship with sport.’ He admits the
latter is hardly a great shaft of sunlight. Pragmatically, the industry
is pleading to retain the existing voluntary agreement, which could be
extended to a total ad ban.
As the lobbying battleground moves toward Europe, does he see an
additional irony for one of Britain’s most passionate Euro-sceptics?
’I think it’s irrelevant. The government is determined to implement this
legislation. It’s just trying to be a good European.’
He says his role is a logical progression from politics. He sees it as
preserving free choice in controversial areas and equates the ’nanny
state’ with the worst excesses of socialism.
Carlisle has previous connections to the tobacco industry - he spoke in
favour of sports sponsorship in 1981 and helped ’talk out’ anti-smoking
bills during the 80s and 90s.
It’s easy to be impressed by Carlisle’s candour and willingness to deal
with controversy. But behind the smile is there really a dangerous man
who puts an ideology of personal freedom above social
When the talk turns to defending the indefensible, Carlisle draws an
interesting parallel. ’We don’t object to the lawyers who represent
people like Myra Hindley,’ he says. His argument, and it is a valid one,
is that in a free society even unpopular causes deserve their
While I’m musing, Carlisle is off. He’s in a rush. He’s going to his
Bedfordshire estate ’to massacre some ducks,’ he laughs.
1964-1978: Country grain trader
1978-1979: Grain buyer, Louis Dreyfuss
1979-1997: Member of Parliament, Luton North
Present: Executive director of industry affairs, Tobacco Manufacturers’
This article was first published on Marketing