Unimaginative nanny-state rhetoric

nanny state

‘Nanny state’ is a politically loaded term, used tendentiously to make an ideological point, namely that it is not the job of government to interfere (another loaded term, of course, as is ‘red tape’) in our everyday lives and decision-making. Expect to hear the phrase a lot in the coming weeks and months. Liz Truss’ new Conservative government is set to chart a markedly different ideological course from its predecessor, led by Boris Johnson, even though it too was a Conservative administration. We read, for example, that ministers are currently reviewing – code for scrapping – the entire anti-obesity strategy for England. The cost of living is cited as a reason, but so is the ‘nanny state’. Life-Based Learning is not overtly political, and certainly not party-political. But any discussion of principles, values and aims cannot be entirely divorced from the realm of politics. LBL is predicated on the idea that we cannot simply carry on as we are – not least in relation to health and wellbeing. Analysis after analysis, health projection after health projection provides compelling evidence that obesity is a health challenge we cannot afford to ignore or tackle in a half-hearted way.

The Johnson government introduced – or was planning to introduce – a number of measures to tackle obesity. A ban on multi-buy deals (eg ‘buy one, get one free’) and on pre-watershed advertising of junk food was due to be implemented this year but then pushed back – for cost-of-living reasons, according to the government. Other measures include:

  • restrictions on the placement of less healthy products at checkouts and store entrances (due to be introduced shortly)
  • a tax on high-sugar soft drinks (introduced in 2018)
  • rules requiring larger restaurants and takeaways to print calories on menus (introduced in April this year)

All of these, it seems, may now be scrapped. It is not hard to find voices opposed to the ministerial review, many of them from outside the realm of party politics. Professor Graham MacGregor, a specialist in cardiovascular health and chairman of Action on Sugar, was quoted by the BBC, for example, as saying that scrapping the strategy would be disastrous to public health and for food business which had prepared for the policy change: “Now, more than ever, the UK population need equitable access to healthy, affordable food and this can only be achieved with policies designed to rebalance our food system.”

Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “Though £6bn might be the annual cost of treating obesity, the overall cost to the nation of obesity and the serious medical conditions that it triggers is £58bn a year.”

We wrote the following in a recent blog about the environment and sustainability:

In free societies it is axiomatic that the power of government should be limited. The pandemic was an emergency requiring extraordinary measures: worst-case scenarios indicated that hundreds of thousands of people might die. However, this was the ground – the proper role of government – where significant differences of outlook first started to show themselves: between those who wanted to restore full individual liberty as quickly as possible, leaving decisions on individual behaviour up to the individual, and those who took a more interventionist view, arguing that there was an important and significant role for the state in safeguarding public health and wellbeing. And the greater the role for government, the greater the financial cost, meaning increases in taxation and government borrowing.

Problems with going green

Two overlapping issues – the political/ideological and the economic: it is not the proper role of government to meddle in people’s lives because it is a denial of our basic freedoms and because it leads to higher taxes. Those sympathetic to this view often refer to the ‘nanny state’ in this context. For them, individual choice must be at the heart of any obesity strategy. The government should not be ‘instructing’ people on things like what they should and should not eat.

As noted above, LBL is not party-political. However, as also noted above, LBL is rooted in the idea that it is folly to continue as we are – whether it is in relation to mental health, how we engage with each other, the environment and sustainability, or physical health.

It cannot be left solely – or even primarily – to individual choice and tinkering around the edges of existing policies and approaches. Something more radical is required – a collective approach to obesity, led by and including an active, interventionist role for government – if we are going to prevent a public health disaster in the decades to come.

Life-Based Learning is about reimagining education so that we focus on the massive life challenges we face.

Education is important so that people have the knowledge and skills to make informed individual choices around healthy lifestyles – what to eat, whether to exercise and so on. But it also needs a collective effort, with government driving forward significant changes in how we educate our children and young people. We need to rethink. We need to change our common frame of reference so that healthy lifestyles become an urgent priority.

Read More About Physical Health

Image at the head of this article by Alice from Pixabay.

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