Opinion: Don’t mistake the bodyguard state for a nanny

Richard Reeves has had a go at trying to describe a path for the Liberal Democrats to follow in order to escape from our current political mire.

It’s an interesting read, but peppered with many more sentences that made me groan than nod along. I take particular issue with his characterisation of minimum alcohol pricing and cigarette sales restrictions as indicative of the “nanny state” at work. The nanny state slaps your wrist as you reach for the cookie jar and says “no”. The nanny state stands between homosexuals who love each other and want to get married. The nanny state says that adults can’t use cannabis.

Regulations on alcohol and tobacco are instead the bodyguard state at work. The bodyguard seeks to protect the individual from corporations whose business plan is to get people to harm themselves by consuming more of their product. It is entirely appropriate for the state to seek to restrict the ability of corporations to exploit our weaknesses for sweet and fatty foods and the highs that drugs can bring us. To be too respectful of the liberty of these corporations is to neglect government’s role in promoting the health and happiness of the people. The bodyguard state doesn’t slap your wrist when you reach for a bun or a beer, but it will disarm and pin the companies that want to push these things at you too aggressively.

And if we don’t embrace the bodyguard state even further it is hard to see how we can make the necessary savings to public expenditure without severely eroding the quality of the public services being provided. It is perfectly reasonable to make savings by cutting front-line police and NHS staff if they don’t have any work to do. We can remove the need for these staff if we first radically alter our relationship with alcohol, tobacco and food. And we can do this by restricting the ability of corporations to catch us early and get us hooked.

It won’t surprise anyone that knows me that it was Reeves’ musings on drugs that made me groan the loudest. The phrase, “There is a strong case for relaxing many of the drug laws” makes me wonder how this man could ever have been employed as a political strategist. For it is in drug policy where the bodyguard state can be at its most useful. A state-controlled cannabis trade with sale from pharmacies and a requirement for education on harms to be delivered before use can be sold as toughening our drug laws.

We should be seeking to deploy a bodyguard dream team when we move to a legal, regulated drug market. Undermining black market profiteers and barring legal profiteers from the drug market will be to have Steven Seagal, Jackie Chan and Kevin Costner chaperoning our young people through their daily lives.

A good liberal can not say that the banks needed better regulated after their greed harmed us by accident, but that alcohol and tobacco companies don’t need better regulated when their products are the most harmful in our society.

* Ewan Hoyle is a West Scotland list candidate for the Scottish Parliament election next May

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23 Comments

  • Richard Swales 22nd Sep '12 - 6:31pm

    If a bodyguard I employed tried to forcibly stop me from drinking I would say he had exceeded his orders by such a long way that I would have no choice to dismiss him from my employment.

    It’s articles like this that remind me that the Lib Dems should be renamed “the centre party”.

  • The ‘bodyguard state’? nope, that’s still the nanny state.

  • David Allen 22nd Sep '12 - 7:14pm

    Good posting. The state can be a force which stands up for the rights of individuals against powerful vested interests. The state acts in that way, for example, when it insists that employers must take steps to ensure the health and safety of their employees. That is why the much-derided “health and safety culture” has resulted in spectacular reductions in industrial death rates.

    “Nanny state” is a term of abuse which belongs to right wingers who would like business to get its own way every time. We should not be using such simplistic, prejudiced language.

  • Jennie Rigg 22nd Sep '12 - 7:20pm

    Smokers and drinkers already contribute lots more to the exchequer than they take out via the NHS. And (as both a smoker and a drinker) I actually don’t mind this. I am paying for any future treatment I might need. But when it slips over into punishment, then actually that IS nannying, it IS denying choice, and it IS illiberal.

  • On first reading I didn’t agree but having thought about it I can see where the author is coming from. I would say the nanny state places restrictions on individuals, whereas the bodyguard state only places restrictions on corporations.

    To use an industrial example, suppose a company provided its workers with needlessly hazardous conditions. The nanny state would punish any employee who chose to work for the company, whereas the bodyguard state would punish the company for having poor health & safety standards. Most liberals would be fine with the second option but definitely against the first. A libertarian might argue that if people want to put their lives at risk working for this company, that’s up to them, and the state should just get its nose out altogether, but I doubt many people here would take that viewpoint so it’s not like we’re against all protectionary state intervention.

    Drug laws certainly fall under the nanny state category, because individuals are punished for / prevented from making choices that negatively affect them. But the ban on cigarette advertising only affects the corporations and doesn’t stop individual smokers from buying cigarettes, or even penalise them for doing so, so I’d class that as bodyguard not nanny.

    Minimum alcohol pricing I guess does affect the consumer by putting prices up, but then so do the extra taxes levied on cigarettes and alcohol, so I’m not sure why someone would object to minimum pricing in particular seeing as the taxes probably have a bigger effect on the price. But either way I’d still class that as a bit on the nannying side, because while it doesn’t prevent people from buying alcohol it financially penalises them for doing so.

  • @ Ewan

    A Nanny that is armed is not suddenly not a nanny, just potentially more dangerous one.

  • I’ve never had a bodyguard. I can only assume that people who employ them want to be protected from something specific and that they have decided is in their interest to be defended against. The difference between a nanny and a bodyguard is that ‘nanny knows best’.

    It’s a nice attempt to get rid of the negative language surrounding the overbearing attempts by government to decide what’s best for individuals, but it’s not substantively any different.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Sep '12 - 9:37pm

    It still says in the preamble to our party’s constitution that we exist to build a society where “No one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. I saw no sense of an understanding of this in Reeves’ article. It was rather just a repetition of the “the market will set you free” theme which has become dominant in British politics since it was introduced as “Thatcherism” in the 1980s. Reeves inability to understand why this has not worked and why it has instead led to a growth in enslavement by poverty, ignorance and conformity marks him out as a third-rater. He has no vision for the future, it’s just bland repetition of platitudes and commonplace ideas which are no longer radical, and which dominate in political discourse because they have been energetically pushed by the wealthy and used to serve their interests. What is more, they do not work – the failure of our party to make progress when under the direction of people like Reeves trying to push it that way shows that. There simply is no big political market for that sort of thing, and most of those who want it are happy with the Conservative Party providing it

  • Simon Titley 23rd Sep '12 - 10:56pm

    Richard Reeves?

    Wasn’t he the chap who, while Nick Clegg’s adviser, came up with the brilliant idea of ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ (on a par with the accidentally leaked Labour slogan in the current series of ‘The Thick of It’: ‘Quiet Batpeople’)?

    Wasn’t he the person who, before working for Clegg, wrote an article in the Guardian saying that all social liberals should leave the party (which would have necessitated the party losing most of its members)?

    Not the first person most of us would choose to advise on the future direction of the party.

  • Richard Swales 24th Sep '12 - 10:26am

    @Matthew – I would say that as a political strategy, the reason it doesn’t work effectively is not that such people are happy with the gay-bashers, litary hawks and drug-warriors in the conservative party, but that the Lib Dems has people with such a wide range of opinions, all of whom are talking at once and all of whom have to be kept on side, that it is difficult to be identified with any kind of political philosophy at all. Certainly the messaging up to 2010 was more left-wing * hence the common assertion that we betrayed by entering coalition with the Tories, rather than just fulfiling our pre-ordained role to be Labour’s emergency backup squad.

    *(actually with all the banker bashing the messaging is still left-wing to an extent, just the policies aren’t which is again an unattractive combination).

  • Richard Swales 24th Sep '12 - 10:28am

    should be “military hawks”

  • Richard Swales 24th Sep '12 - 1:24pm

    “The nanny state says that adults can’t use cannabis.”

    Isn’t current Lib Dem drug basically to have a commission recommend changes in drugs policy? In other words, the political equivalent of “we’ll see what your mother says”. So basically to deny there is any politically “liberal” or “libertarian” reason that is relevant and it is going to come down to what some people think about “tactics”.

  • Richard Swales 24th Sep '12 - 1:26pm

    Also, I now know what kind of profession (not bodyguards) has the right to stop people smoking and drinking in their free time. It’s slave-owners.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Sep '12 - 3:43pm

    Richard Swales

    @Matthew – I would say that as a political strategy, the reason it doesn’t work effectively is not that such people are happy with the gay-bashers, litary hawks and drug-warriors in the conservative party, but that the Lib Dems has people with such a wide range of opinions, all of whom are talking at once and all of whom have to be kept on side

    Er, I’m not sure what point of mine that’s meant to be a reply to. The point I’m trying to make is that there’s more to freedom than having gay sex and taking drugs. Or, to put it properly, there are restrictions people feel to their freedoms other than the restrictions given by state legislation. The statement I quoted from our party constitution, which at least until recently most people seemed to take as the most basic statement of its principles indicates what some of those restrictions might be. I found it telling that Richard Reeves’s suggestion for the future development of our party and what he called “liberalism” contained no mention of these various ways in which we may be “enslaved”.

    The idea that “liberalism” is merely about reducing state legislation is a rich man’s idea of freedom. It’s the way of thinking that comes if you come from such a wealthy and privileged background that you have no idea of just how enslaving it can be when you you have no money and none of the contacts and doors which open automatically merely at the sound of your accent and look of your clothes and not even the knowledge of how to improve yourself.

    The growth in social and wealth division which has been continuous in this country since Mrs Thatcher pushed it down the road of “free markets are the answer to everything” has to my mind decreased the freedom of many rather than increased it. I’m happy to accept the civil liberties aspect of liberalism, and also that freedom to trade and freedom of choice in goods and services is part of liberalism. What I’m not happy about is people who can’t see there is any more to freedom than that, and who in fact have the Leninist line of labelling their views as “progress” and wishing to throw out anyone who does not agree with The Party Line that they themselves have laid down. That is what Richard Reeves was doing.

    That his approach to politics is at heart Leninist was shown by his dismissive comment suggesting anyone to the left of him should be in the Labour Party, no need for any more parties of the left than that. It’s not just that he doesn’t agree with politcial pluralism here, it’s that he lacks the basic liberal instincts even to be able to comprehend it – he literally cannot think about it becasue that liberal bit of his brain that would do such a thing is missing. No, with him it’s all follow the party line, and march, march, march along the road set by your Great Leader and his Director of Strategy, brave footsoliders of the revolution, no turning back because this is progress and cannot be questioned.

    I am a liberal, I don’t agree with that sort of thing. Funnily enough, Mr Reeves seems to think that makes me a social democrat.

  • Richard Swales 24th Sep '12 - 9:35pm

    @Matthew,
    Rather than go over the same points again as we have in other forums about the tax issues. My point is simply that if you read the article Reeves (who I have never heard of before) in this article seems mainly to be talking about “choice” issues like alcohol pricing rather than tax/workplace issues. People who care about a wider range of state freedom issues than just tax are not likely to be happy in the Tory party – in the article he criticises Cameron for floating minimum alcohol pricing.

    When PR finally comes, and there is the “realignment in politics” we say is liketl to come after that, then I do see the point of a left-liberal party as distinct from the authoritarian-left in Labour. On the other hand I don’t see the point of a left-liberal party in name that is distinct from Labour only in terms of the exact selection of eye-catching policies in the latest manifesto. To say “We don’t see it as a legitimate aim of government to try to choose for you about cannabis and alcohol” would put clear liberal (on anyone’s definition) water between such a party and Labour. If there is no agreement on things like that in the current big Liberal Democrats then I don’t see how it is a party at all, just a debate forum, and I don’t see why I should be a member (I’ve left), knowing my dues could be supporting candidates who believe in neither fiscal nor personal freedom, just as easily as supporting people I agree with.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Sep '12 - 10:49pm

    Richard Swales

    My point is simply that if you read the article Reeves (who I have never heard of before) in this article seems mainly to be talking about “choice” issues like alcohol pricing rather than tax/workplace issues.

    I have read the article. It seemed to me to have a very narrow view of “liberalism”, and yet it insisted only this was “liberalism” and, insultingly, suggested any of us who had a wider view of liberalism should go off and join the Labour Party. As I have noted, nothing in this article suggested that poverty, ignorance or conformity may be just as much the causes of restriction of freedom as state legislation – which one might have thought someone who was Director of Strategy for a party which puts ending enslavement by these things as one of its main aims is pretty strange. It seemed to me to be pretty clear that when he wrote of “concentrations of power” he meant what was left of state power and was ignoring the way power in society has moved away from the democratic state towards the oligarchy of international big businessmen.

    It all depends on focus – I see the difference between Reeves (and yourself?) and the Tories as pretty insignificant, while I am clear on how I differ from Labour, whereas Reeves sees my differences with Labour as small and his with the Tories as big. I am sorry however – it does seem to me that a party whose whole focus is on freedom to consume drugs and a few other such things is very niche, and not really addressing the huge discontent and feeling of lack of freedom that exists in Britain today.

    People like Reeves may tell me I should go off and join the Labour Party because I feel freedom for ordinary people can be enhanced by an active state and by restrictions on the power and dominance of the wealthy. But if you think the difference between me and Labour is so small that I’d happily go off and join them, how come I’ve spent 20 years of my life fighting them in a part of inner London where they dominate, six of them as Leader of the Opposition in a Labour-run council?

  • Richard Swales 25th Sep '12 - 7:08pm

    @Matthew
    So to be clear, you don’t accept the “liberalizing” agenda on things like drugs, you don’t see a problem with minimum pricing for alcohol, and you are not bothered about gay marriage? If your position on tax/spend/workplace regulation issues is also within the normal range found in the Labour party, and your main difference with them is not actual policy priorities, but things that could fall under the heading of “ways of doing politics” then sorry I don’t see why you and they spent 20 years getting in each others way in attempting to achieve the same things. Also (and as an ex-member I can say this) I don’t see why I would vote for you instead of a socially- liberal Conservative candidate, simply because there are other people elsewhere in your party who are closer to my views than either you or the hypothetical Tory. I don’t know anything about Reeves, but there are big policy differences between me and the mainstream of the Tory party – apart from the personal choice issues, actually they aren’t really economically liberal(or libertarian if you prefer that terminology) either – the recent article by two of their supposed brightest young thinkers which mentioned the “problem” of people choosing to take early retirement was a good example of how they believe in economic freedom only when it suits their agenda – I have never worked out if that agenda is about keeping people working longer to aid corporate profits or national greatness or what – but it is not motivated by freedom of choice at its core. I on the other hand don’t really believe economic growth should even be a target for government *. If people want to work 5-day weeks and have more spending money or work 3-day weeks and have more time with their families then both those outcomes are equally groovy for me.

    At the moment as a party the Lib Dems don’t seem to have a very clear line on the personal choice issues or the economic ones.

    * Although with the current state of public finances there isn’t a lot of room to manouvere on this at the moment.

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