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Home > Culture and Society

The Nanny State: What's the beef?

4 December 2004

You may have noticed people getting into a lather about the 'nanny state' over the past week. This was largely the result of children's minister Margaret Hodge defending the nanny state, saying it was entirely appropriate for the state to 'pick up the pieces' when family life went wrong.

From the press reaction, you could easily be forgiven for thinking she'd said:

'We must take all children from their parents at birth and put them in care of practising paedophiles. At school they will be taught that working is wrong and that they should depend on the state for the rest of their lives, preferably by getting pregnant aged 11...'

But while the press reaction was predictably silly, noone comes out of the nanny state debate looking good.

The right-wing press invariably overstates anything to do with the 'nanny state' to suit its own agenda. Take social workers. Journalists with absolutely no experience of social deprivation and even less knowledge of social work confidently tell us that social workers are some sort of politically correct Gestapo. Until a case like Victoria Climbie comes along, when the same newspapers start demanding to know WHY DIDN'T ANYONE KNOW WHAT WAS HAPPENING TO THIS CHILD?

It's hard not to reach the conclusion that the press doesn't know or care what it means by the 'nanny state'. It's just another emotive expression like political correctness that they can use to make their readers angry, which seems to be the main function of the Mail and the Express.

But then, as if to oblige right-wing newspapers, the government has managed to introduce measures that really do smack of excessive government intervention. Perhaps the best example is banning smoking in pubs, or at least (in a typical New Labour fudge) those that serve food. Essentially, New Labour has taken a
normal aspect of UK life, the pub, and demonised it, using the issue of smoking.

Now, smoking is extremely harmful. Smoking regularly for a long period of time will damage your health and increase your chances of suffering from very serious illnesses like lung cancer, throat cancer and heart disease - all illnesses which, even if they don't actually kill you, can make your later life a waking

The problem is that it doesn't automatically follow that we should have smoking bans. For a start, it's far from clear what the actual risks posed by passive smoking are (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/637758.stm for a few of the
arguments), certainly relative to the risks posed by long-term actual smoking. Even the BMA estimate that passive smoking kills 1,000 people a year doesn't relate specifically to pubs. In practical terms the question is: will a few nights spent each week in a fairly smoky pub significantly increase your chances of contracting a smoking-related disease?

If the scientific/medical case isn't the reason for smoking bans, then smoking is being restricted because of the personal preferences of the majority of people, who don't smoke. Fair enough - to some extent. People often say 'Well, noone thinks it's OK to smoke at work anymore' but this rather misses the point. People have to work, and they're entitled to be shown a certain level of consideration. They shouldn't be subjected to other people's cigarette smoke while they're working, any more than they should be subjected to a co-worker who farts all day or be forced to listen to Yes Sir I Can Boogie all day because it's their boss's favourite song.

However, unlike the workplace, pubs are traditionally places where people go to smoke and drink. What else do people go to pubs for? The decor? To listen to the bar staff's choice of music? The selection of crisps?

Of course, most people would agree there should be non-smoking areas in pubs, out of the same basic consideration for others that dictates that you shouldn't have to sit next to Mr Farty at work. But complaining about there being cigarette smoke in pubs is essentially complaining about pubs being pubs. Maybe once the
smoking ban is in place, the same people who used to complain about pubs being smoky will start complaining that there are people in pubs who are pissed and loud.

But perhaps the worst thing about the nanny state debate is not the hysterical press or a government that seems to want to turn lifestyle choices into health issues, but the way that the nanny state has so little to do with the real issues.

In the case of smoking, the fact that some people smoke until they develop lung cancer is a real issue. The fact that some people don't like smoky pubs isn't. But for some reason the current government is in love with high profile interventions, however unpopular or ineffective they may be. Banning smoking in pubs won't stop people smoking, except for the most casual social smokers who would probably give up anyway.

When successive governments have thoroughly educated children and adults about the dangers of smoking and other unhealthy lifestyle choices and given them generous amounts of support in changing their habits (at the moment you can even call an NHS smoking hotline) and they still choose to do harmful things, surely there comes a point when the state has to simply give up?

You would think so. But maybe this government isn't actually bothered about whether its initiatives work - it just likes to make grand gestures. In which case, another term of New Labour could be truly horrific. They're already talking about a 'traffic light' coding system for food, as though people are genuinely confused about whether a Southern-style fried chicken ready meal is more or less healthy than a bag of oranges.

Maybe New Labour could reduce the number of arson attacks by labelling boxes of matches with the warning 'BURNING DOWN BUILDINGS HAS CONSEQUENCES', or stop murders by labelling knives with 'REPEATED STABBING CAN CAUSE INJURY AND LOSS OF LIFE'. If all you care about is token gestures, then such a policy would be completely effective. In a token way.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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