Last fall, the United Kingdom’s outgoing Chief Medical Officer, Sally Davies, published a report on childhood obesity. Among her proposals for “bold action” were measures to “allow children to grow up free from marketing signals and incentives to consume unhealthy food and drinks,” including the suggestion that the government “prohibit eating and drinking on urban public transport, except fresh water, breastfeeding and for medical conditions.” Such intrusiveness into everyday life, and its tenuous justification—that adults must not set a bad example for children by, say, snacking on the go—made the announcement a watershed in the growing British habit of taxing, banning, and tut-tutting an ever-longer list of perfectly ordinary activities.
In 2016, the government announced a nationwide tax on sugary soft drinks. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has banned junk-food advertising on public transport in the capital. (Even an ad for organic grocery delivery raised objections because the food pictured included jam, butter, and bacon.) In one of her last acts as prime minister last summer, Theresa May published a paper suggesting higher taxes on milkshakes and a ban on energy-drink purchases by children, and setting a goal for a smoke-free Britain by 2030—surely a target that cannot be met without prohibition. This comes on top of extensive sin taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. The U.K. ranked fourth on 2019’s Nanny State Index, a listing of the “worst places in the EU to eat, drink, smoke and vape,” compiled by Epicenter, a think tank.
Davies’s resignation wish list also included plain packaging for unhealthy food and caps on calories per serving. In 2018, the government asked food manufacturers to remove 20 percent of the calories from their products by 2024. Facing the threat of state action if they failed to do so, their compliance is voluntary in only the narrowest sense. The government has also set the food industry a challenge of reducing sugar in foods like cereals, candy, yogurts, ice cream, and cakes by 20 percent this year.
It isn’t just what Brits choose to eat, drink, or inhale. Last summer, a new code from the Advertising Standards Agency came into effect, banning advertisements showing “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offensive.” When a Volkswagen advertisement ran afoul of the rules because three people complained that it depicted a “woman in a care-giving role” (a mother), it became clear that these rules would be used as a pretext for extensive intervention in how companies communicate with customers.
Nanny-state measures chip away at the divide between the personal and the political—and they are bipartisan. Since 2010, Conservative-led governments have not shown much resistance to paternalistic interventions that one would regard as the natural preserve of the Left. Nor have they shown much appetite to stand up to trigger-happy bureaucrats. If the Right, while in power, makes no principled objections to bans on food and drink, why should conservatives or pro-market liberals expect the Left to show restraint when it gets its turn? If advertisers are not permitted to deviate from a centrally determined set of values, why not prohibit dissenting voices altogether?
Nanny-statism also swells the ranks of bureaucrats whose instincts, almost by definition, are unlikely to be laissez-faire. Manning the desks of quangos—quasi-autonomous nongovernment organizations—are meddlers who, if left unsupervised, will only expand state intrusions into daily life. They are also given pulpits, and the credibility of an important-sounding job title, from which to criticize the government for not doing enough. The result is a trend of ever-diminishing freedom.
A conservatism less generous than left-wing alternatives with the public purse but just as disapproving and distrusting of people to make decisions for themselves is not appealing. Standing up to the nanny state and embracing small but tangible freedoms, as well as those bigger but more abstract, makes for a stronger contrast with a humorless Left. It also puts the Right on the side of poorer Britons, on whom the burden of the nanny state weighs heaviest. George Orwell understood this point. As he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, “The less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food . . . . when you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food.”
This is something that another old Etonian, Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson, seems to understand. Taxes on less healthy food “clobber those who can least afford it,” he said during the Conservative party leadership election last summer, promising to end the “continuing creep of the nanny state.” It’s no coincidence that populists across Europe—including, in the U.K., leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage—fashion an image as hard-living, fun-loving drinkers and smokers. It’s a small but meaningful way of implying that they stand with the average voter. Armed with a parliamentary majority, Johnson should go beyond such symbolism and roll back these small-scale intrusions.
Millions in the West today feel a sense of powerlessness in the face of economic and cultural forces beyond their control. Sometimes, though, the tipping point to action is more mundane—it was an increase in fuel duties, for example, that sparked the Gilets Jaunes protests in France. In the eighteenth century, the introduction of a gin tax helped spark violent riots across London. “No gin, no king,” was the crowd’s chant. Britons might not be about to take to the streets over the prices of soft drinks or the ability to drink coffee on the Tube, but politicians ignore the meaning of these everyday freedoms at their peril.
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