Shifting the Overton window


A key phrase in the Institute for Government article on obesity that was the focus of last week’s blog was ‘political squeamishness’. Though the article’s headline referred to “ministers’ fear of nanny statism”, the phrase was there in the standfirst (the brief summary below the headline) as well as in one of the subheadings. The actual report’s opening summary speaks of “difficult politics” and says that “politicians worry about the perception of ‘nanny-statism’ and policies hitting poorer people harder”. The report states that ministers’ fear of nanny statism is constraining effective government action on obesity. We agree. As we said last week, we need to fundamentally rethink and recalibrate. And that means altering the very terms of debate when we discuss how we best respond to the obesity challenge.

The terms ‘nanny state’ and ‘nanny statism’ are popular on the political right. In a nutshell, hostility to an activist, interventionist state that ‘interferes’ in our lives and limits our ability to act as free individuals combines with a belief in the economics of low taxation.

This is what the right-wing MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said about the government’s recent mobile phone emergency alert test:

It is back to the nanny state – warning us, telling us, mollycoddling us when instead they should just let people get on with their lives and make sensible decisions for themselves.

And this is how former UK prime minister Liz Truss was introduced when she delivered the 2023 Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture organised by the Heritage Foundation (a right-wing thinktank in Washington that has a Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom):

Prime Minister Truss spoke for free people all over the world. For those of us who are Americans, we have a special affection for her because she delivered finally on Brexit. She confronted the big tax, big government establishment in her country and, dare I say, even her own party.

Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation

Nanny statism – ie the beliefs, values and assumptions of those who use the term nanny state – is indeed a worldview closely associated with Margaret Thatcher (UK prime minister from 1979 to 1990) – and Ronald Reagan (US president from 1981 to 1989) – and it is a safe bet that most of those who share this worldview would cheerfully self-identify as Thatcherites (or Reaganites).

But it is also a fairly safe bet that most voters in the UK are not such enthusiasts for this minimal-state, ultra-low taxation, red-in-tooth-and-claw iteration of capitalism. Most of our politicians certainly are not, including many of those in the Conservative Party. And yet the Institute for Government talks of “difficult politics”, of long-term “political squeamishness” and of “past governments” – plural – failing to effectively tackle rising obesity’s root causes.

The Institute for Government is a thinktank that aims to improve government effectiveness through research and analysis. Its report is clear that part of the reason for the long-term failure to tackle obesity is “cross-party policy-making incoherence”. Part of the solution, it says, involves a shakeup within government, including the creation of a cross-government food and health unit. In other words, the government needs to do more, and it needs to do it better.

It was not Ronald Reagan or George HW Bush but Bill Clinton – champion, along with Tony Blair in the UK, of what came to be called ‘the third way’ – who proclaimed, in his State of the Union address in 1996, that the era of big government was over. What we might call the Thatcherite worldview has set the terms of debate about public policy since the 1980s. It is the paradigm within which mainstream politics operates. Fear of the perception of nanny statism – of governmental overreach – continues to limit what administrations of all hues are willing to do.

The Overton window – named after an American political analyst – is a concept used in political science. It refers to the range of policies voters will find acceptable. A policy that is outside the Overton window will not be accepted by the mainstream voting public. Any such policy may be widely seen as extreme or simply as impossible to achieve – and therefore any fundamental rethink of a policy or a set of policies (ie an approach or a strategy) will almost certainly require shifting the Overton window so that what was previously deemed extreme, impossible or unthinkable becomes acceptable, doable and achievable.

The Overton window concept is closely linked with the idea of common sense – ie with what instinctively seems right. The reason why Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric from the 1980s is still popular today is because it became the dominant paradigm, setting the terms of debate and defining what was seen as common sense in politics and economics.

The political commentator Sonia Sodha has argued persuasively that, in economic policy, “the narratives of the political right are more compelling because they are more intuitive”. Thatcher’s claim that running one of the largest economies in the world was no different from running a household budget, though ridiculously simplistic (and, according to many economists, fundamentally wrong), was easy for voters to understand and seemed to make sense because it aligned with how they lived their lives.

Shifting the Overton window – changing the popular mindset – involves altering the terms of debate. But individuals do not form their worldview in a vacuum, of course. Our thinking – about what is or is not right, acceptable, achievable – is heavily influenced by the media and other opinion shapers. For good or ill, much of the battle to reset the terms of debate needs to take place on this terrain.

In her article Sodha discusses the notion of the maxed-out credit card. It is a commonly used metaphor in the media and on the political right in arguments about government spending. It seems to make sense. It fits with our everyday experience of having to limit what we spend because we only have a certain amount of money and at some point it will run out. It would be great if the government could do more to help the poorest, to support families, to improve our public services – but where is the money coming from? Or so the argument goes. There is (to quote another well-worn phrase) no magic money tree.

But look what happens, says Sodha, when we change the metaphor. Think of government spending not as partying on the credit card but as taking out a mortgage. It is something that is equally part of the everyday experience of many people, a commitment that millions of us take on as a sensible long-term investment for the future.

Let’s think of tackling obesity as a sensible long-term investment for the future.

In the final blog in this short series we will explore why we need a collective approach to obesity.

The image at the head of this article is by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

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