Opinion: Why Richard Reeves is wrong about the ‘Nanny State’

When I joined the Liberal party in the 1980s, no one then used the term ‘Nanny State’. Originally it was a term the political right wing started to use; I do not recall when exactly. The terms betrays its upper case origins, a class that can afford to pay for a Nanny to look after the children.

Richard Reeves has recently published a Demos book that was handed out at the ‘What is Cleggism?’ fringe meeting at the Brighton conference last week. His use of the term ‘Nanny State’ is not new for the Liberal Democrats; I noticed Ed Davey use it 5 years ago, and I suspect he wasn’t the first. I think my first question to those who like using the term is: how far would you go?

In the US the political right use the term’Nanny State’ to oppose ‘Obama care’. Apart from a small fringe, no one in the UK is proposing we abolish the NHS, although how it is structured is obviously a controversial matter. What I think is interesting is that I am sure most people would oppose ‘The Nanny State’ as an abstract concept, but would change their minds on specific proposals. Most people would think it would be madness to have the US constitutional ‘right to bear arms’ in this country, and they would support a strictly regulated right to be allowed to possess arms for particular purposes as the current laws permit.

One of the great reforms of the last Labour government was the smoking ban in public places. There have been huge efforts by some of a libertarian inclination to repeal this law, but there is simply no interest from any of the party political leaders to do so, and no evidence that the general public want this either. The most interesting part of this lack of popular will to change the law back again is that even many smokers do not want the law to change. How come?

In my opinion the reason is that many smokers want to give up, and a smoking ban helps them to do so. The problem that smokers have is that once they are addicted to smoking, they find it much harder to give it up. And so smokers are much less concerned about their lack of freedom to smoke in public places, and much more concerned that their own addiction takes away their preferred freedom to be able to give up smoking. In other words, it is not just the state that can take away your freedom.

However it is this narrow view of freedom – that it is solely diminished by the state – that has lead to huge mistakes in policy, such as light touch regulation of the banks in the City of London and the US, and light touch regulation of the tabloids. The media presence in Brighton, as usual, did their best to find the most disgruntled Lib Dems and found it at the stand for the Liberal Democrat Disability Association, many of whom have had their state benefits drastically cut.

Just as well then that apart from that fringe meeting, the term was hardly used at all at conference. Times have moved on.

* Geoff Payne is the former events organiser for Hackney Liberal Democrats

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  • Simon Titley 2nd Oct '12 - 6:11pm

    Jedibeeftrix as usual misses the point entirely. Whether one feels ‘nannied’ is a matter of quality not quantity; it has nothing whatever to do with the proportion of GDP spent by the state. His simplistic formula is about as meaningful as “how long is a piece of string?”

    Geoff Payne touches on a fundamental question: what constitutes liberty? Our liberty and freedom do not necessarily exist in inverse proportion to the state. Assuming one believes that freedom should be real and felt (and is not merely an abstract or legalistic concept), then what matters is ‘agency’, by which I mean people’s capacity to make meaningful decisions about their lives and to influence the world around them.

    The state can either enhance or diminish this freedom. It can improve our agency and life chances by providing things like policing, education and health care that most of us could not otherwise afford. It can take away our freedom by attacking civil liberties.

    The marketisation of public services does not necessarily enhance our freedom, because it assumes that people’s only legitimate means of expression is via buying and selling. If this were the only means of expressing our views, it would severely limit what we could say and who we could say it to. Moreover, it would mean that inequalities of wealth were matched by inequalities of power. Hence the need for democratic politics as the only means of real power that most people have to challenge the powerful.

    I dislike centralised state power as much as the next liberal, but we should be suspicious of those who muddle the issue of whether the state is too centralised or unresponsive with the issue of whether public provision is legitimate at all.

    Therefore an ideological debate between the state and the market does not settle the issue as far as most liberals are concerned. The question we should ask is where power rests and what provides each of us with greater ‘agency’ and greater life chances. And if state power is too centralised, the answer is often greater democracy rather than marketisation or an entirely abstract limit on public spending.

  • Bill le Breton 2nd Oct '12 - 6:43pm

    Thank you, Simon, for such an illuminating and inspiring comment.

  • Sad to see newspaper regulation brought into this discussion. All the tabloids needed was the existing law properly enforced (and it belatedly is, as several dozen newspaper employees are now finding out to their cost), not new laws introduced. We aren’t the Labour Party. Not every problem can be solved by legislation

  • Matthew Green 3rd Oct '12 - 10:37am

    Geoff is right to caution against knee-jerk reactions against “Nanny State”. The public is in fact very selective about the intrusions it welcomes and those it doesn’t. Smoking bans were either welcomed or treated with indifference. But “Health & Safety” has been turned into a pejoritive phrase, and not just because of the usual right wing nuts. The critical thing about the smoking ban was that smokers were undermining the enjoyment and health of those around them. The issues around obesity, for example, are much more delicate. Then there is the question of disproportionate regulation, like the last government’s active discouragement of volunteers to work with children and the vulnerable in order to reduce the risk of giving nasty people an opportunity. This is one area where Lib Dems can present a clear critique of Labour ideas.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Oct '12 - 10:59am

    It’s sometimes effective to use the terminology of a political trend one opposes in order to generate deeper though on the issue and to counter the way in which the assumptions of such terminology get accepted as regarded as facts. It can also be very effective in political argument to hit one’s opponents from a direction they were not expecting. So I wouldn’t say the mere use of the term “nanny state” by a LibDem is wrong, it may be good political tactics. I would want to see, however, whether it is being used consciously as I have suggested above, or unconsciously just picking up its usage by the US political right along with the assumptions behind it.

    I have come to the conclusion the US political right is something we often see in civilizations on the decline. There is an attempt to adopt superficial aspects of that civilization’s early days in the supposition that will somehow reverse the decline and return to the growth and optimism of those days. The conquest of a vast and (almost) empty land and the lives of the pioneers who did that is a stirring story (only we Brits do guilt on the unpleasant aspects of the past), and the US right does seem to be based on the idea that somehow they are still living in that age, or at least it can be magically brought back by such things as people going around with guns as perhaps they might have needed to when there was the real danger of being attacked by wild animals. Obviously, it will not work, because there is no wild west frontier beyond which those squeezed out of ownership can go to obtain it, they don’t have an economy where most goods and services are provided by small town businesses, etc etc. Pretending it will work is a way of avoiding asking real questions about what is happening in their society.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Oct '12 - 11:04am

    A few years ago I assisted in a Health Commission. One thing we noticed was the role of local newspapers in attitudes to smoking. For years they were resistant and mocking of a smoking ban. Probably advertising revenue was speaking.

    But at some moment, perhaps when they detected the attitudes of their readers changing, they switched and became supportive. Not long afterwards legislation followed.

  • Freedom to what is the key, and raises so many questions, too.
    Freedom to walk to the local shop at night. Fine. Does having CCTV cameras at the shops defend that freedom, or is it more important that anyone is free to walk around and not be recorded ?
    Freedom to eat what you want. Fine. That also means we have more freedom of choice by having proper information on which to base our choice of food – so does that mean compulsory labelling of food so shoppers can easily see what the fat and carb content are ?
    I could go on, but these will do for starters.

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