Nudging, Bullying and Banning – Living on Licence in the Nanny State
BY MATTHEW GROVES
1997 was a turning point in the history of the United Kingdom. A Labour landslide after the party had been almost twenty years in the political wilderness meant everything was about to change.
Most notorious for its attacks on civil liberties through criminal justice legislation and its attempt to introduce ID cards, New Labour also eroded the free nature of our country in other, less obvious ways. Many new laws were justified because they were “morally right” in the eyes of our political masters, but each new law chipped away at the notion that we are a free country.
Under the Blair premiership there were 2,685 new laws a year and the overwhelming majority were passed by statutory instrument. This dramatic increase in legislation inevitably involved a series of bans, which meant a cultural change – so that we feel more like a statist than a free culture. From banning hunting with dogs with the Hunting Act 2003 to banning smoking in public places with the Health Act 2006, the power of the state to make our recreational, moral and health decisions on our behalf greatly expanded. Then there was the nannying approach of New Labour to public health as a whole and the pursuit of meeting climate change targets. One key example of this was the shift to diesel fuel pushed for by the Government. Ostensibly to protect the environment and people’s health, but as many were already aware, diesel proved to be more harmful to human health than ordinary petrol. If you trust so much to the administrative state, do not be surprised that it will make wrong choices.
The Licencing Act, dressed up as the opportunity to drink for longer hours, was actually a major power grab into communities by the administrative state. For example, the impact on live music, which suddenly had to be licensed by the state, not only lost its organic spontaneity, but also impacted on the pub, already under pressure from heavy taxation on alcohol. What the Licensing Act did was to change the balance of power from a society where you could generally do anything unless prohibited to one where community, spontaneous and music events now required permission. Even if for many obtaining a licence is just an irritating requirement of bureaucratic red-tape, it has led to a cultural change and is a corollary of the cultural change of banning activities some might disapprove about, but in a truly free country would never be banned.
One might have hoped for a change with the Coalition Government, but a key element of David Cameron’s philosophy was to achieve liberal ends by conservative means. This led to the disconcerting use of the nudge policy. Instead of outright legislation a less open approach of pushing people into “better” behaviour as the state defined “better” was introduced. Never did the Cameron leadership question the goals of the state, only its methods.
Under Theresa May things got no better, with the emphasis on equality of outcome, which really meant the state intervening where it should not intervene. Then there was more nannying, with the attack on sugar in drinks, so that instead we are now all drinking the far-more-unhealthy chemical substitutes rather than natural sugar! All rather like the Government’s pressure to shift from petrol to diesel.
And so the modern Brit finds it difficult to leave his house in the morning without breaking one law or another. Our lives become more and more stifled by an administrative state that has reached its tentacles into every aspect of life. It thereby infantilises us, making our moral and health decisions for us, while creating a stifling effect on freedom of thought and speech. 1997 was the turning point that saw us begin to drift into a claustrophobic statist-society, with every new law justified on the most in-vogue set of values, but always another step away from freedom.
Of course this is not a slippery slope to Stalinist totalitarianism, but it is a form of soft totalitarianism, where we live on licence at the morally-right-on behest of our betters in Whitehall. Nonetheless to infantilize people in this way and deny them genuine freedoms creates a burning resentment and embitterment. It seems it does not matter which party is in power, the legislation just keeps coming. Often the European Union has rightly been blamed as our Parliament has been a mere rubber stamp for its laws. Often Whitehall has gold-plated EU legislation. And furthermore our own politicians have been all too keen on new laws.
Finally there is a beacon of hope in the form of a new Prime Minister promising to deliver Brexit and hinting that he would roll back the nanny state. Boris Johnson was not only determined to “get Brexit done”, but spoke of his opposition to the nanny state and his plan to revisit the many “sin” taxes imposed upon people. Every conservative and classical liberal waits and watches.
The point is that every move by the nanny state has been made in the cause of good, progressive and bien-pensant moral values. This will not do though in a free society. If the progressives truly achieve their dream by control and legislation or even nudging for that matter there will be a very human reaction.
The Russian Nineteenth-Century author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, is often credited for having foreseen the havoc radical and revolutionary ideology would wreak on his nation. He was also a sceptic about English liberalism and enlightened attitudes. In his short novel “Notes From Underground” he makes the case against the do-gooder and how he is bound to fail. Human beings, if they are to remain human, cannot be nannied and made to be good citizens. Such attempts only lead to reaction. Dostoevsky’s protagonist, an embittered retired civil-servant who had enjoyed all the petty powers of the administrative state makes the point about being human that we all know to be true:
“You shout at me (if you do still honour me with your shouts) that no one is taking my will from me here; that all they’re doing here is busily arranging it somehow so that my will, of its own will, coincides with my normal interests, with the laws of nature, and with arithmetic. Eh, gentlemen, what sort of will of one’s own can there be if it comes to tables and arithmetic, and the only thing going is two times two is four? Two times two will be four even without my will. As if that were any will of one’s own!”
We might make the man in Whitehall despair, but if he does, we know we are still human beings in a free country and not mere piano keys played by the benign state . . . It is time for the Conservative Government to launch the rolling back of the nanny state.
Matthew Groves was a local Councillor for eight years in East Surrey, during which time he was vice chairman of the Planning Committee and Chairman of the Housing Committee. He stood for Parliament in the 2010 General Election in Plymouth Moor View. After this he worked for the Church House Parliamentary Unit liaising with MPs about education reforms and some other policy matters. For a time he wrote blogs for the Respublica thinktank and the British Monarchist Society. He is now completing a full-time postgraduate research degree in theology.