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Friday, March 25, 2005


The Nanny State and the Billy State

Liberals presumably favour choice but what do we actually mean by 'choice'? Judging by recent debates within the Liberal Democrats, few have any coherent idea and the resulting internal debate has been, at best, at cross-purposes or, at worst, a complete irrelevance.

The webzine Spiked recently hosted a conference called
Whose Choice is it Anyway? - it was clearly a fascinating debate and I wish I'd been there.

The conference discussed "why choice has become a ubiquitous buzzword in politics and public life, yet at the same time has become a degraded concept that accords us less and less capacity to make big decisions about society and everyday life."

Much of our increased choice is illusory. We are offered a plethora of trivial consumer choices but not a choice about the kind of society we wish to live in. We are invited to make 'informed choices', notably regarding 'healthy lifestyles', while being subjected to moral imperatives about how we exercise this choice. This 'New Conformism' is a recurrent theme in Spiked.

The most interesting contribution to the conference seems to have been that of Dr Michael Fitzpatrick (I strongly recommend his book
The Tyranny of Health, a corrective to the prevailing orthodoxy). In a session on 'Is Britain becoming a nanny state?',

...he examined the way in which distinctions between public and private life have been collapsed in recent years, leading to the increasing instrusion by the state into the most intimate aspects of people's private lives. In the past, a robust sense of the distinction between private and public life meant that the state was reluctant to interfere in individuals' personal behaviour, and attempts to do so - even for such clearly publicly spirited ends as mass vaccination against smallpox - were met with fierce resistance.

Now, however, the state passes up no opportunity to attempt to modify people's behaviour, and far from such endeavours being met with resistance, they tend to be embraced, by an atomised society that has become inwardly focused on its personal health. While extreme examples of official intrusion are sometimes met with the cry, 'Nanny state gone mad!', this merely indicates that the 'nanny state' in general has been generally accepted. 'Nanny state' is an inadequate term to describe the reach and authoritarian dynamic at play today; and while Dr Fitzpatrick suggested that the idea of a 'therapeutic state' might be a better description, he called upon the conference to start thinking of a term that could more accurately encapsulate it.
In other words, we should reject the authoritarian content of the 'nanny state' while recognising that the term has become a useless cliché. As Liberals, we should support the fundamental principles of autonomy and self-determination, even if that means people make the 'wrong' choices. Instead, too many Liberal Democrats have been seduced by paternalism masquerading as 'choice'.

For example, a major part of the ideological argument going on within the Liberal Democrats has been about the role of choice in the public services.

The party's critics of choice are not necessarily opposed to choice per se but see it as a second order problem. Without raising expenditure and overall standards, they say, choice simply gives an advantage to the sharp elbows of the articulate middle classes and leaves everyone else with no choice but an inferior service.

The party's advocates of more choice believe that public services must match the heightened expectations of the savvy bourgeois consumer if they are to retain any value. Middle class people no longer tolerate being told by some bureaucrat which school or hospital they must use.

My problem with both these camps is that they have ended up making the same mistake as socialists and conservatives, making a fetish of a system (whether the traditional public sector or market forces) rather than considering the outcomes.

Liberals should be focusing on producing whatever outcomes enable each of us to be liberated rather than oppressed. Moreover, they should be advocating a real devolution of power rather than arguing the merits of New Labour's token consultations. Giving people 'agency', real control over their own lives, is what ought to distinguish the Liberal Democrats. And the outcomes this approach might produce, in terms of public services, would be a refreshing mixture that satisfies none of the old dogmatists.

Instead, here we are, divided over whether to steal Old Labour's clothes or New Labour's.

The Liberal Democrats of whom we should be most suspicious are those who claim to oppose the maternalist 'nanny state' while being only too ready to endorse its alter ego, the paternalist 'billy state'. They want to "set business free" while setting a premium on being "tough" on the individual. Like the so-called 'nanny state liberals', they are authoritarians at heart, but they have co-opted the language of freedom while losing sight of what Liberalism is about.

For every MP like Paul Burstow (who wants to stop us smoking, drinking and eating), the Liberal Democrats have a Mark Oaten (who wants to slap an ASBO on everyone).

The Liberal Democrats are planning a 'post-election policy review' chaired by Charles Kennedy himself. If it is to be of any use, this review should open up a genuine debate - it is overdue and the party needs it. Liberalism is a broad enough philosophy to contain considerable scope for interpretation and debate. But the forthcoming policy debate should be within this scope, not outside it as fans of the 'nanny state' and the 'billy state' seem to want.

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