I hate pithy political slogans, slogan -ISM with this government rises in intensity it seems every week that goes by. I truly thought that this may come to an end following the demise of the New labour project, how wrong I was.
Well I’m reviving a frequently used slogan from the Labour era, foisted upon us by the right of the political spectrum – THE NANNY STATE
Now I never believed in a “nanny state”, a philosophical discussion on the role of the state would be nice to have, but is virtually impossible in the popularism of today’s politics. So what does it mean?
The term has been attributed to people as varied as Karl Marx, Iain Macleod (Conservative MP in 1965), Margaret Thatcher in the 1980’s and Bernard Levin. It describes the emotional feeling that “the state”, or government is interfering too much in peoples lives. It does however, have a varying number of applications depending on whoever views the term as politically advantageous to use.
So it can be used within the sphere of economics and trade, to argue against protectionism in the market place; or a government that simply makes too many laws as Lord Hailsham argued in his book “Dilemma of Democracy”; or it is attributed to the interference in individuals lives, prescribing how people should live.
If we look at a brief history of modern governance in the UK it can be seen that actually the nanny state could be used against the left or right, and can be used to attack the values of the majority or the minority.
In 1945, our country was profoundly changed by the introduction of the NHS; Free Education to children up to 16 years old; and the introduction of the welfare state and pension provision. This was brought in on a popular mandate due to the mass poverty experienced in the 1930’s.
Indeed there has never been a more popular government in terms of share of the vote in post war Britain, even when the Labour Party lost the election in 1951 they garnered more votes than the Conservative party. It was considered no longer “civilised” for children to not be educated to a basic standard; or to die due to not being able to afford health care; or indeed to remain in absolute poverty in an essentially rich country.
The conservative party in the 1980’s and 1990’s professed to know what the country needed by embarking on a privatisation programme that was not mentioned in the original 1979 manifesto (sound familiar?). We were told that what mattered was not “society”, but individuals and family. We were given a back to basics policy by John Major, a moralising of such hypocrisy it cost a good number of politicians their jobs.
With New Labour we had both sides of the coin, with far too many laws passed, top down targets, yet liberal economic policies believing in deregulation of financial markets and the freedom of movement of immigrant labour. The latter hardly being a manifesto commitment of the “nanny state”.
So now we have David Cameron and Nick Clegg, sharing the rhetoric between them. We have the dishonesty of manifesto commitments cast aside and the rhetoric of decentralisation while at the same time lecturing the nation on the way we “should” behave. Is there really any difference?
Whether we believe there is a nanny state or not, the question should not lead us to whether it is the fault of the left or the right, but rather a danger of something else altogether. The philosophy of the state itself.
The “state”, whoever controls it, likes to use it’s power in order to achieve what it regards as it’s “agenda”. The rhetoric rarely matches its deeds, and the slogan of the nanny state can be used against virtually any government of the past 65 years.
The coalition has announced its wish to redistribute wealth on the basis of moral values with tax breaks for married couples. It proposes to ban displays of cigarettes and advertising on its packets.
It talks of bringing power closer to the people, yet tries to cap council tax, effectively abandoning local accountability. They tell us constantly that we live in a “Broken Britain”, and that they are here to fix it. They say they have a mandate from the people, yet many of their policies were either not in the manifesto of either party or diametrically opposed to what was in them.
We are told something needs to be done about our “binge” drinking and that every town and city is a war zone and that more laws are needed to reduce the choice to drink in establishments past traditional closing times.
Is any of this any different to what has gone before?
Is the attack on the European Court of Human Rights a matter of reducing the nanny state of “Europe”, (bearing in mind it has nothing to do with the EU) or simply the fact that the executive of the UK always dislikes checks and balances and any limitations on power?
If the “nanny state” ever existed (which I do not believe it did), then it is alive and well with the current government and will get significantly worse over the coming years as they cling on to power.
How do we confront the power of the state
The question for those that talk of the nanny state is how do we curtail the power of the state not which government wields it.
In my view this can only be done with fundamental constitutional change. This is the kind of change that sadly most politicians would not entertain in this country, largely because they see the power they can get in our system (which is almost absolute with a large majority). But this opportunity for power is not for the people of this country, but simply for egotistical politicians.
The challenges to attempt constitutional change are enormous. If we look at the struggle at the moment for the AV referendum, this is the smallest of small changes to the electoral system, yet we get some of the most ridiculous arguments put forward against it. The very idea that any electoral system is legitimate when only £460,000 people decided the last election is plainly ridiculous.
In truth, the whole battle over state power, has nothing to do with party politics, but with those hungry for absolute power, and the public who need to hold them to account.
Next time we hear the call against the “nanny state”, perhaps we should ask them what their view is of constitutional change, I think we would get an interesting but predictable answer.