Poynted remarks

IssueFebruary - March 2024
Comment by Claire Poyner

Recently, a politician moaned about something or other, calling it ‘the nanny state’. It got me wondering. When does a particular policy get to be called (some might say ‘dismissed as’) the nanny state? Who gets to decide? Is it a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? Does nanny actually know best?

‘The nanny state’ suggests that a government or its policies are overprotective, like a nanny towards their charges.

NB: by ‘nanny’, I mean a person employed to look after children, and not a grandmother (in much of the south of England). This confused me at first, thinking people were suggesting I had the money to afford a nanny when my daughter was a child.

So, anyway, here’s an example. When they passed the law making seatbelts compulsory, there were, I remember, complaints about lack of freedom (freedom to be launched face-first through a windscreen, perhaps) with one senior Tory saying it was ‘yet another state-narrowing of individual freedom and individual responsibility’.

Wearing seatbelts became compulsory in 1983. At the time, I was working as a medical records administrator in an A&E department. Having seen some of the things that happen to a human after hitting a windscreen, I would have thought wearing a seatbelt should be obvious. It’s far less controversial now.

Did anyone refuse to wear a seatbelt on a plane, I wonder?

Did anyone grumble about government getting too involved in people’s lives when they legislated on the need to take lessons, and pass a test, to drive a car? Banning small children from working in factories or down coalmines?

Then there’s ‘nanny’ telling you to look both ways before crossing the road. Was the Green Cross Code a bit ‘nannying’, I wonder?

Meanwhile, several surveys indicate that the public did actually favour some of the ‘nanny state’ interventions. In 2004, the BBC reported on such a survey from the King’s Fund think tank.

After that survey, someone from the doctors’ lobby group, Action on Smoking and Health, said: ‘In what way is it saying people want a “nanny state”? I think the King’s Fund is in fact saying that people don’t think intelligent government intervention is nannying.’

Other interventions include taxes on unhealthy foodstuffs. This might be seen as a bit nannyish, but if we accept that some taxes are necessary to pay for things like healthcare, pensions, travel infrastructure and the like, then why not levy them on sugary drinks? It’s not as if they are essential for life.

Does anyone actively object to taxes on cigarettes, apart from the tobacco-industry-funded ‘Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco’ (FOREST)? From the other point of view, why not help make healthy food cheaper? Would nanny object? Would you?

Those who dismiss some sensible policies to protect the public or to steer in the right direction as ‘the nanny state’ most likely come from the sort of background where they wouldn’t have to worry about such things.

I have read some posts on social media suggesting it’s too nannyish to insist people on building sites wear protective clothing. Again, this is not something that sir Percival Double-Barrelled of Gloucester will ever have to worry about since dear Tristram won’t have to go anywhere near a building site, being set for Oxbridge and a career in finance or the media (or government).

Similarly, the government’s childhood obesity strategy, which aimed to ban the sale of fatty and sugary foods at supermarket checkouts, among other things, could be considered to be about increasing choice. Wouldn’t a harassed parent on a minimum income actually prefer to not have to drag their children past a display of sweet and fattening goodies? Does anyone want to exercise the freedom to be obese?

I realise that, given all the dreadful stuff going on in the world now, this is perhaps a bit trivial? Sorry about that. I am not an expert on the Middle East other than to say: Ceasefire Now!

However, I do like to sound off about annoying things people say. Dismissing something which might have been sensible, as ‘the nanny state’ is currently up there with ‘hard working families’.

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