Every time you see the words ‘nanny state’, it’s best to take a deep breath and admit into your brain two contradictory thoughts.
Sensible thought: if the government has a duty of care to its citizens, which surely it does, then we should celebrate the nanny state. The state can be as much of a nanny as its likes over, say, attempting to reduce smoking. It’s a vile and stupid habit, but that’s easy for me to say as it’s a habit I don’t have.
Less sensible thought: It’s fine for nanny to nag people about smoking and about eating so much rotten food they inflate themselves. But those few drinks I have every week? Oh, come off it, they can’t be a problem, can they?
That second thought raises the Travis Bickle question: “You talkin’ to me?”
It seems nanny was talking to me when the suggested number of units a week was halved for men to 14 units. Under the old rules I could smugly sip my wine or slurp my beer, knowing I drank nowhere near the limit. And then that changed.
Has it been a good change? Well, it’s made me think between drinks. Recently I did one of those online health surveys and discovered I drank “more than 63 per cent” of men my age.
What, even with four nights a week alcohol free? Do those other men my age live in a monastery or something?
The phrase nanny state is usually attributed to the Conservative politician Iain Macleod, who is said to have coined it for a Spectator article all the way back in 1965.
Every time someone suggests we eat or drink less of something, it is now an official rule of journalism that certain newspapers must moan about the nanny state. Yesterday it was the turn of the Daily Mail, which described Dame Sally Davies as “nanny-in-chief” for suggesting a ban on eating on public transport.
Over in the Daily Express, Kate Andrews said the idea was so extreme it suggested “an unhealthy obsession with consumption on the part of the public health officials who cooked it up”.
The Times was more reasonable, saying that some moderate restrictions were worth considering, arguing: “These may seem ludicrous to some, but so once did a ban on smoking in public places.”
In her final speech before retiring, the chief medical officer made the entirely reasonable point that the government should put children’s health before companies’ profits. She said it was “every child’s right to live in a world that promotes, not harms, their health”, adding that junk food advertising should be banned.
It was the ban on eating on public transport that earned most nanny points. And this left me in a quandary. Eating on public transport and on the street can be generally unpleasant. All that food, all those calories, all that fat, all shoved down people’s faces as they dash about or sit with their feet on the seats on trains.
One of the problems with such eating, surely, is that the food barriers have been removed. And once that happens, people feel free to eat all the time and anywhere.
With you so far, Dame Sally. But what about long journeys? If you’re on a two or three-hour train trip, you will need to eat. Anyway, Dame Sally’s prohibition can’t possibly extend to food snobby people who eat sandwiches cut from a loaf they baked themselves.
In a sense, my reaction pinpoints the problem. Health advice is all very well when it’s directed at somebody else. But the problem comes when you clock that they’re talking to you.
Dame Sally is right to worry about children being overweight. As for all that nanny state stuff in the Mail and Express, well, that lot are never happier than when having a moan they’ve moaned many times before.