Saving us from ourselves: how Britain learns to accept the nanny state

Smoking, smacking, smartphones for children: never mind the ‘nanny state’, the current national debate seems full of demands for decisive action from politicians to save us – or our children – from ourselves.

Rishi Sunak’s ban on selling cigarettes to under-15s in perpetuity once they come of age has been backed by 59% of the public, according to a recent poll.

He has been unapologetic in defending the tough policy, despite some of his more libertarian colleagues – including business secretary Kemi Badenoch – claiming it is an infringement on personal freedom. raising fighters”.

Meanwhile, Labor leader Keir Starmer, whose MPs supported the tobacco bill in the House of Commons this week, previously embraced the term “nanny state” when faced with objections to Labour’s policy of monitoring children’s teeth brushing.

“The moment you do something about children’s health, people say, ‘You’re going the route of the nanny state.’ We want to fight that battle,” Starmer said earlier this year.

And surveys of parents concerned about the impact of smartphone use on their children’s mental health show that almost 60% support a ban for under-16s.

Meanwhile, leading doctors met this week to urge the government to ban the beating of children in England and Northern Ireland.

Professor John Coggon from the University of Bristol, who specializes in public health law, says policies aimed at children are not really a ‘nanny state’. Instead, the phrase refers to measures to protect adults – whether they like it or not.

Although aimed at children, Starmer’s willingness to embrace the term ‘nanny state’ seems telling. And opinion polls show that both he and Sunak are on solid political ground.

Tony Blair and John Reid at the 2006 Labor Party Conference. Photo: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The term ‘nanny state’ was popularized in political debate by the. Conservative MP Iain Macleod in the 1960s regarding paternalistic legislation – including the 70mph speed limit on motorways, which he called ‘ephemeral nonsense’.

Debates about such policies have often been heated. Tony Blair gave his MPs a free vote on Labour’s ban on indoor smoking in 2006, despite objections from colleagues including minister John Reid.

“What kind of enjoyment does a 21-year-old single mother of three living in a municipal sink house get? The only pleasure they have sometimes is smoking a cigarette,” Reid had said two years earlier, when he was health minister.

Coggon says the overwhelming support today for hard-fought policies such as indoor smoking bans and seat belt requirements shows that assessing measures at this time can be difficult.

“I’m old enough that when I went to law school as an undergraduate, smoking bans were given as an example of laws you couldn’t pass, because they said, ‘You all could pass a law saying you can’t smoke in public. places, but people would still carry on,” he says.

“As we try to assess this, we have to realize that this will actually happen in the future: we are not in a position to do that yet, and people will have changed the way they think about things.”

Ironically, the British Prime Minister who imposed the most draconian public health legislation in peacetime, Boris Johnson, saw himself as the opposite of a ‘nanny state’ politician – despite, or perhaps partly because of, had a babysitter myself.

His antipathy to Covid lockdown measures was clear even as he announced them. Nevertheless, public compliance was high, if not at number 10. But the legacy of these decisions is complex and long-lasting. Johnson has called Sunak’s smoking policy “crazy”.

Christopher Snowden, head of lifestyle economics at libertarian think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs, says there was growing public acceptance of restrictive policies long before Covid.

“The average individual is definitely more likely to ban things than they were 10 or 20 years ago. This is partly because there is endless talk about banning things. If it is not the politicians who say they want to ban things, then it is a campaign group,” he says. “There’s probably about 30% who would ban everything – anything you asked about, they would ban.”

Stefan Stern, a management expert whose latest book is called How to: Be a Better Leader, says voters can sometimes welcome the appearance of decisive action. “I would say that occasionally there seems to be some need – and this is where the judgment comes in – for the appearance of control, the illusion of order. It’s reassuring,” he says.

He adds that it is not always clear where the line should be drawn. Support for a smoking ban does not necessarily have implications for other areas of health and social policy, such as obesity or gambling: “It’s an excellent judgement.”

Pollsters say the “power” of politicians has become an increasingly salient feature in recent years, which may have meant that the political dividends appear to be lacking in boldness.

The sheer scale of the challenges currently facing the NHS – and the resulting costs to taxpayers – may also have helped to assuage public concerns about policies that could once be seen as draconian.

But the reaction to Sadiq Khan’s ultra-low emissions zone in London – a tax, not a ban – underlines how fierce the reaction can be when some feel their freedom is being violated.

It remains to be seen whether Sunak’s Tobacco Bill will fuel a thriving hidden market for illicit cigarettes as today’s under-15s come of age.

But at least at this point, the public seems willing to accept that when it comes to smoking, the babysitter knows best.