Save us from the politics of behaviour

From spotting ‘problem people’ before they are born to advising dads on how to talk to their sons: government agencies are colonising our private lives.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

How long before British adults will need a licence to parent their children?

Prime minister Tony Blair and his New Labour colleagues seem to believe that the solution to society’s problems lies in getting their hands on the nation’s toddlers before their parents can ruin them. Their focus is on ‘early intervention’ – and for Blair, intervention can never be early enough. He believes it is possible to spot tomorrow’s problem people even before they are born. Weeding out unfit parents through imposing quality control over their activities is a key plank of the early-intervention movement. Until recently, their agenda was rarely seriously questioned; however, questions have been raised following Blair’s statement at the end of August 2006 that the state should spot potential problem people before they are even born. For some, this was a step too far. ‘This one about identifying troublesome children in the fetus – this is eugenics, the sort of thing Hitler talked about’, argued Tony Benn, former leader of the Labour Left (1).

It is somewhat surprising that people are only now waking up to the authoritarian implications of early-intervention policies. Early intervention has been one of the principal policy innovations of New Labour. Its Sure Start programme, as well as numerous local initiatives launched in recent years, are primarily designed to save children from their parents or to manage the emotional behaviour of youngsters. The aim is to spot potential troublemakers and manage their behaviour. This institutionalisation of what we might call ‘people-blaming’ reduces social problems to individual emotional deficits.

Of course, individuals do have very real personal problems; some find it difficult to function as a result, and others embark on a path of destructive behaviour. But is the real problem that a woman might smoke, might be overweight, left school when she was 16, had a child when she was 18, and is now living as a lone parent? Or is it rather the culture of low expectations that pervades her life, or perhaps the erosion of her community or the poor economic circumstances of her own parents? We can pick and choose, or even argue that all these are conditions that contribute to poor life chances. But in the end, we have to decide whether this and other individuals’ problems are rooted in their personal behaviour and emotional deficits or in something beyond the individual – be it a culture of low expectations, social anomie, or ‘old-fashioned’ poverty. These days, policymakers are inclined to focus on the personal problems of the individual and to opt for the ‘politics of behaviour’ as a remedy.

Policies built around behaviour management – sometimes referred to as the ‘politics of behaviour’ or ‘positive welfare’ – are an attempt to alleviate a crisis of legitimacy within official authority. For some, these policies are an attempt to ‘re-establish the social virtue of self-discipline’; for others they are about encouraging people to adopt ‘positive lifestyle choices. Whatever the motive, the politics of behaviour presents problems as the outcome of individual or psychological deficits. And through minimising the influence of the social, our culture fosters a climate where the internal world of the individual is seen as the site where societal problems are raised, and where they apparently must be resolved.

New forms of state intervention

In a recent speech, Blair noted that policymaking’s shift in focus from the social to the individual does not mean diminishing state intervention – it merely means a change in the form of state intervention. Blair pointed out that while the state will withdraw from directly providing some services, it will adopt a more activist role in other areas. The new emphasis is on influencing, regulating and policing people’s lifestyles. ‘A more responsive NHS can’t work unless patients also respond’, he noted, adding that ‘more successful schools depend also on more successful parenting’ (2). In other words, patients must adopt the ‘right lifestyle’ and parents must socialise their children according to best practice. From this standpoint, policy outcomes ‘depend on the decisions and choices of millions of individuals and companies’, and the task of Blair’s ‘enabling’ state is to ‘empower’ people ‘to make the right [choices]’. So the problems confronting people are not social, but rather are a result of poor choices made by uninformed, unmotivated or irresponsible individuals.

As Blair argues in relation to the NHS: ‘Our public health problems are not, strictly speaking, public health questions at all.’ Rather, he says, ‘they are questions of individual lifestyle – obesity, smoking, alcohol abuse, diabetes, sexually transmitted disease’ (3). Blair equates poverty – or what is euphemistically characterised these days as ‘social exclusion’ – with poor lifestyle choices. That is why he can say that ‘social exclusion is one of the many policy areas that are public health policy in disguise’. Changing habits and behaviour underpins the policy of early intervention in children’s lives. As Blair observes, ‘parents need to be supported as habits can persist from childhood into adulthood’.

Governments are continually embarking on crusades that target people’s diets, health, sex lives, parenting strategies, alcohol consumption levels and their attitudes and behaviour towards others. This politicisation of individual lifestyle is directly proportional to the de-politicisation of public life. Consequently, the focus of public policy has shifted from engaging with the responsible citizen to treating him as if he were little more than a biologically mature child. In the Reagan-Thatcher years, there was a distinct trend towards turning the citizen into a customer. More recently, the decline in the status of the responsible citizen has accelerated, and given rise to a model that infantilises people as clients or patients, vulnerable individuals in need of support. As a Downing Street policy analyst argued recently, the government’s relation with the public is akin to the relation between parents and their problem teenagers, who are unwilling to be controlled but are not yet ready to take responsibility for their lives (4).

With no vision or strategy for developing the public sphere, political elites opt instead for the management of micro issues. Numerous technical matters that were never previously the province of officialdom have become the focus of government initiatives. The New Labour government is now concerned that its clients may be ‘lacking in the knowledge, skills or cooking equipment necessary to prepare healthy meals’ (5). Most politicians no longer even pretend to have any interest in promoting a distinct philosophy or an ambitious political project. Instead they seem preoccupied with banal ‘lifestyle’ issues and petty schemes for intervening in our private affairs.

Policymakers do not confine themselves to preaching. Much policy innovation is now driven by the desire actually to manage and change how individuals live their lives. In March 2005, then UK secretary of state for health, John Reid, announced government plans for a ‘healthier and fitter’ nation. The plans involved getting experts to ‘draw up personal health plans for life’ for children. An army of Orwellian-sounding community matrons will descend on schools to provide advice to ‘support’ children to lead healthier lifestyles. Children will even be given pedometers so that they can measure how far they walk in an attempt to encourage them to take more exercise (6).

Adults are not left out. Apparently the government plans to launch a magazine titled FIT, which will be aimed at young men. It will ‘raise awareness’ on issues such as condom-use and how to lose weight. Reid also announced that a propaganda campaign will be launched, ‘to build public awareness and change behaviour’ in areas such as obesity, sexual health and smoking. To assist this objective of changing behaviour, the ‘independent’ National Consumer Council (NCC) will be charged with developing a ‘social marketing strategy that promotes health’. The NCC will also ‘consider health psychology and social research to determine how best to influence lifestyle and change behaviour’.

It is clear that the UK government is not simply concerned with providing information. It is in the business of behaviour modification. That is why government ministers are not interested in social research that helps to make sense of the world and points out the root causes of problems facing the nation. Instead, their concern is solely with research that can help them to influence and alter individual behaviour. Once upon a time, such research was characterised as propaganda and social marketing, a form of emotional manipulation. Today, emotional manipulation is depicted as an instrument for ‘raising awareness’. As Paul Barker, former editor of New Society, wrote, the British government is ‘wedded to social intervention, for which a better phrase would be social manipulation’ (7).

The assumption that government has the duty and the right to manage and alter personal behaviour is a relatively new development. Governments always sought to influence public behaviour – but they tended to rely on local custom, moral norms and the informal pressures of community life to influence individuals. In democratic societies there used to be an unwritten rule that government should not intrude into the domain of people’s private lives. This point was at least rhetorically acknowledged in the UK government’s 1998 consultation document, Supporting Families. ‘Governments have to be very careful in devising policies that affect our most intimate relationships’, it warned (8). Yet despite striking this note of caution, the document brazenly proposed intervention into intimate aspects of family life. It outlined plans for a government programme to help individuals prepare for marriage; it proposed launching projects aimed at saving marriages; it also put forward policies designed to help parents cope with the arrival of a baby.

On a more ominous note, it suggested imposing parenting orders on mothers and fathers who are deemed to have failed to control their children. Since the publication of this document, the UK government has adopted a highly interventionist role. Former home secretary, Jack Straw, stated that the culture of parenting needs to be changed so that ‘seeking advice and help’ is ‘seen not as failure but [as] the actions of concerned and responsible parents’. One of his objectives was to turn parenting into a legitimate sphere for government intervention (9).

The loss of any sense of restraint when it comes to intervening in people’s private lives is one of the most significant developments in public policy over the past two decades. Governments that have become uncertain of their values and purpose have refocused their energies on the management of individual behaviour and the regulation of informal relationships. Increasingly, governments have sought to adopt the role of protecting people from themselves and from other members of the public. In return for acknowledging the authority of government to play the role of a caring Big Brother, the state is happy to provide support and affirmation to individuals in search of recognition.

Behaviour modification

Take the UK government-sponsored publication, Married Life: A Rough Guide for Couples Today. It offers paternalistic advice on everything from how to buy a wedding ring to how couples should communicate with one another. Couples are advised to allocate time for each partner to speak without interruption. The pamphlet is written in such a way that suggests that couples who are about to get married are really only children playing at being grown-ups. It assumes that its readers lack common sense and the resources to make elementary decisions about how to conduct their intimate affairs. Worse still, Married Life promotes the idea that it possesses a superior understanding of human relationships, which it has a duty to impart to an otherwise immature public.

The same patronising formula is adopted by the booklet Dads & Sons, published in August 2002 by the Department of Education and Skills. In a section advising fathers how to help sons with their homework, it says: ‘make sure he’s got somewhere comfortable to work away from the TV.’ Dads & Sons assumes that fathers are just grown-up children who need to be reminded of the blindingly obvious. This theme is also echoed in a ‘Dad Pack’ published by the government in June 2006. Men are advised ‘not to have affairs’ during their wives’ pregnancy; they are also instructed ‘to bite your lip, not your partner, when she is ratty’ (11).

Not all government publications or initiatives seek overtly to treat grown-ups as children – but they do tend to be based on the idea that officialdom has both the right and the authority to modify our personal behaviour. From time to time, government officials react defensively when criticised for overstepping their jurisdiction. Usually they will assert that they are not promoting a Nanny State but are merely ‘helping’ or ‘supporting’ ordinary people. However, with the passing of time advocates of state intrusion into private life have become more aggressive in justifying their right to manage our behaviour. It was in this vein that former children’s minister Margaret Hodge insisted that the government has a ‘powerful’ role to play in family life. She argued that ‘it’s not a question of whether we should intrude in family life, but how and when – and we have to constantly remain focused on our purpose: to strengthen and support families so that they can enjoy their opportunities and help provide opportunities for their children’ (12).

This rhetoric of ‘support’ is frequently used to justify policies that demand that we conform to government strictures. ‘Support’ is always extended to those whom the government thinks needs help – whether they like it or not. Support rarely means assisting people in times of difficulty and struggle. In practice, it means putting pressure on people to adopt a course of action favoured by government. One government strategy document declared that its aim was to ‘promote health by influencing people’s attitudes to the choices they make’ (13). Supporting people to make choices actually means getting them to do what the government believes is in their best interests. In this paternalistic vocabulary, ‘informed choice’ means behaving in ways ‘informed’ by government-sanctioned values.

Behind the scenes, the political elites are continually trying to win public acceptance for their project of colonising private life. Various publicity campaigns, ‘research’ and surveys aim to endow the project with legitimacy. So it isn’t surprising that surveys of the public often echo this government line, apparently finding that members of the public want to be treated like children. Take the King’s Fund’s survey, published in June 2004. In a survey of 1,000 people, the Fund, which is devoted to ‘raising awareness’ of public health issues, found that many people supported the state’s right to control people’s diets and public smoking. ‘This poll goes a long way to debunking the myth that the public are afraid of a “nanny state”’, said the Fund’s chief executive Niall Dickson (14). Surveys which inform the people about what they really want are central to the process of transforming grown-ups into needy children.

Today’s interventionism into private life is very different to the previous approach to health and social policy. Those who support the colonisation of the private sphere sometimes claim that they are merely following in a progressive tradition that has covered everything from the abolition of child labour to the provision of free milk in schools. They claim their policies are designed to anticipate and offset problems that might compromise public health. However, these defenders of the enabling state confuse public health policies that seek to create the conditions for healthy living with public health policies that attempt to manage individual behaviour and manipulate people’s emotions. Today’s campaigns for ‘healthier lifestyles’ are less about improving our health than indicating how we ought to live. They are motivated very much by what government ministers themselves refer to as the ‘politics of behaviour’. According to Tessa Jowell, a prominent New Labour minister, managing ‘the new politics of behaviour’ is ‘one of the most fascinating challenges facing the government’ (15).

Unlike Jowell, most advocates of the state management of personal life have not yet codified their approach as the ‘politics of behaviour’. Nevertheless, it is clear that the undeclared project of today’s policymakers is to manage and control behaviour. The term ‘politics of behaviour’ was coined by New Labour MP Frank Field, who argued that Britain is moving from the ‘politics of class to the politics of behaviour’ (16). Field believes that the ‘new politics is about moderating behaviour and re-establishing the social virtues of self discipline’, helping to reinforce ‘what is good and acceptable behaviour’ (17). He developed the notion of a ‘politics of behaviour’ primarily as a way of dealing with anti-social neighbours; but for others, the real focus of this politics is the management of people’s lifestyles and informal relationships (18).

Some proponents of the politics of behaviour prefer the term ‘positive welfare’ to describe their policies. For Anthony Giddens, such policies both pre-empt problems and help alter lifestyles that might lead to negative outcomes. So it is not simply sufficient to prevent smoking; apparently, ‘treatment for the physical effects of smoking needs to be geared to making sure that individuals subsequently alter their lifestyle habits’ (19). Unable to come up with a positive or decisive social policy, the promoters of the politics of behaviour attempt to alter individual lifestyles.

As C Wright Mills suggests, the demise of the sociological imagination invariably helps to shift the focus from public issues to private troubles. Today, governments are busy redefining public issues as personal troubles. A report published by the Scottish Executive claims that ‘pessimism is a causal factor in poorer educational and job performance, lower longevity, depression and suicide’. It also argues that low self-esteem is a risk factor for ‘poor economic outcomes’ (20). Is it any surprise that policymakers now invent policies that aim to make individuals happy? In 2002, the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit explored the potential for promoting ‘happiness policies’ at its ‘life-satisfaction seminar’ in Whitehall, London. Presently, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working on a ‘happiness index’. Soon, instead of measuring GDP or productivity, we will make do with happiness statistics.

I feel your pain

The reorientation of the welfare state, from attending to people’s material needs to attending to their therapeutic needs, is endorsed by some critics of traditional redistributionist social policy. They claim that, in the past, traditional policy was far too focused on material goods. The argument for a more emotional system of welfare is based on the idea that we need a ‘holistic’ approach, one that meets the ‘emotional as well as physical needs of human beings’ (21). This approach has received an intellectual boost from those who argue that social inequalities are experienced through a ‘psychosocial mechanism’ that links structure to individual health. It is argued that socioeconomic factors now primarily affect health through indirect psychosocial routes, rather than direct material routes. From this standpoint, the call for an egalitarian society is justified on the grounds that it will improve individuals’ mental and physical health. ‘Emotions, health and distributive justice are therefore intimately related in the developed Western world’, argues one advocate of this approach (22). In the field of British social policy, many believe that the state’s assumption of a therapeutic role is a long overdue reform. In the book Social Policy and the Emotions, Paul Hoggett argued that the ‘concept of “wellbeing” provides a core principle around which a new vision of positive welfare could be organised’. For Hoggett and his co-thinkers, ‘wellbeing’ is defined essentially in mental-health terms (23). In the same vein, Richard Layard claims that public policy should be directed towards making society happier. And ‘to become happier, we have to change our inner attitudes as much as our outward circumstances’, he argues (24).

The idea that state intervention into people’s internal lives is essentially unobjectionable, even desirable, enjoys widespread intellectual support. Some claim that the role of public authority and of the therapeutic professional is an empowering one. On both sides of the Atlantic, advocacy groups continually demand that government promote policies built around ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘happiness’, ‘emotional democracy’ or ‘emotional literacy’. The aim of one British think tank, Antidote, is to integrate the insights of psychology into political and public life. It seeks to advocate policies that ‘foster emotional attitudes tending to support the development of more cohesive societies’ (25).

The politics of behaviour may well provide a provisional solution for an oligarchy confused about its role and direction, by substituting therapeutic intervention for political direction. Where today’s cultural elite lacks the confidence to tell people what to believe, it feels quite comfortable instructing us how and what to feel. This shift from the public to the personal is one of the distinctive developments of recent times. As public life becomes emptied of its content, private and personal preoccupations are projected into the public sphere. Consequently, passions that were once stirred by ideological differences are far more likely to be engaged by individual misbehaviour, private troubles and personality conflicts. In this climate, the practice of individual therapy is seen as indistinguishable from the measures that are required for the ‘healing’ of society. As a Downing Street policy analyst noted, government plays the role of a therapist exhorting the patient to ‘own his anger’ (26).

Therapeutic policies aim to forge a relationship between government and individuals through the management of our private lives. As one commentator noted, ‘it is telling that technologies similar to those employed by counselling have now become part and parcel of the way in which the current British government governs its people’. The politics of behaviour represents a quest to ‘gain unfettered access to people’s subjectivity’ (27). Of course, to some extent governments have always sought to influence public attitudes. But influencing attitudes towards going to war or over issues such as capital punishment is very different to manipulating how individuals behave within the confines of their home. This therapeutic turn to the private individual is underwritten by the idea that people ‘need support’ in order to cope with their state of vulnerability. The unstated supposition of the politics of behaviour, or ‘positive welfare’ if you prefer, is that citizens must be treated like vulnerable children.

Why do many accept that therapeutic governance is essentially unproblematic, and potentially even empowering? Because we live in a time when individuals’ own capacity is derided. From this outlook, some find it difficult to accept the ideal of the self-determining subject capable of exercising democratic citizenship. There is widespread scepticism about the ability of people to act as responsible citizens, without the support of professionals who know what is in their best interests.

This anti-democratic ethos informs government policymaking and agenda. People are not so much engaged as ‘treated’, ‘supported’, ‘counselled’. Today, the authorities take a highly individualised approach towards the public, which seeks to disaggregate them and manage them as clients or patients. Of course, so long as the public is disengaged from politics, they can be treated as atomised individuals. The politics of behaviour both confirms this status, and consolidates it.

The representation of state policy as an instrument of ‘empowerment’ institutionalises that relationship of dependence between patient and therapist in a disturbing new way. It is difficult to reconcile the view of an individual as someone whose emotional wellbeing is contingent on institutional support, with the democratic vision of a citizen who holds the powers-that-be to account. The transformation of the citizen into a patient has the potential for altering the relationship between the people and public institutions. The new therapeutic social contract is underwritten by the paternalistic assumption that the vulnerable subject needs the management and ‘support’ of officialdom and the state. Indeed, in all but name it ceases to be a social contract at all, and turns the relationship between the public and the state into an individual transaction.

One final point. Although the politics of behaviour is driven by a moralising imperative, it rarely makes explicit the values that it upholds. While ministers claim to be in the business of empowering people to make the ‘right’ or ‘healthy’ choices, they seldom spell out their message. There is something distinctly dishonest about the statement ‘helping people make more healthy choices is now at the core of mainstream activity by government’ (28). But this reluctance on the part of the government to spell out what it wants people to do is not inspired by some nefarious hidden agenda. Rather, the turn towards the micromanagement of behaviour is symptomatic of an absence of purpose and direction. Taking the social out of policy allows government to avoid engaging with the question of what society is really all about.

Frank Furedi is author of Therapy Culture:. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

(1) Cited in ‘“Problem Families” Scheme Set Out’, BBC News; 5 September 2006.

(2) See Speech by the Prime Minister The Right Honourable Tony Blair MP, ‘On Our Nation’s Future’, At the Albert Hall, Nottingham, 26 July 2006.

(3) See Speech by the Prime Minister The Right Honourable Tony Blair MP, ‘On Our Nation’s Future’, At the Albert Hall, Nottingham, 26 July 2006.

(4) Cited by Patrick Wintour ‘Voters act like teenagers says No 10 policy analyst’, The Guardian; 22 December 2005.

(5) Department of Health (2005) Choosing a Better Diet: a food and health action plan, p.7. (Department of Health ; London).

(6) ‘Children at centre of drive for a fitter nation’, The Guardian; 10 March 2005.

(7) Paul Barker ‘Lovers of freedom should fear for Britain, not the US’, The Guardian: 10 January 2005.

(8) Home Office, Supporting Families: A Consultation Document, p.30, 1998, London.

(9) ‘Draft speech for the Home Secretary – launch of the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group’s Report “Family Matters”, 23 July 1998.

(10) See ‘Nanny state tells dads-to-be: don’t have a fling’, The Daily Telegraph; 14 June 2006.

(11) See ‘Nanny state tells dads-to-be: don’t have a fling’, The Daily Telegraph; 14 June 2006.

(12) Cited in ‘”Nanny state” minister under fire’ BBC News-online, 26 November 2004.

(13) Department of Health (2005) Choosing Activity: a physical activity plan, p.11 (Department of Health : London).

(14) Cited in ‘Public wants a “nanny state”’, BBC News-online; 28 June 2004.

(15) See Tessa Jowell ‘Politics of Behaviour’ in The Observer; 21 November 2004.

(16) Cited in Michael white ‘Frank Field plan to beat yobs’ in The Guardian; 10 December 2004.

(17) Cited in Flint (2004) p.2.

(18) For Field’ usage of the term see Field (2003).

(19) Giddens (1994) p.156.

(20) See Scottish Executive Strategy Unit (2005) Confidence in Scotland., Scottish Executive : Edinburgh, p.1

(21) See Hoggett, P. in Lewis, G., Gewirtz, S. and Clarke, J.(2000) (eds) Rethinking Social Policy, (Sage : London).p.144

(22) See Williams, S.J. (1998) ‘”Capitalising” on emotions? Rethinking the inequalities in health debate’, Sociology, vol.32, no1.pp.132-33.

(23) See Paul Hoggett ‘Social Policy and the Emotions’ in Lewis et al (2000) p.145.

(24) Richard Layard ‘Happiness is back’ Prospect; March 2005, issues 108.

(25) Cited in Furedi (2004) p.49.

(26) Cited by Patrick Wintour ‘Voters act like teenagers says No 10 policy analyst’, The Guardian; 22 December 2005.

(27) Arnason, A. (2000) ‘Biography, bereavement story’, Mortality 5 (2), p.194.

(29) Department of Health(2005) Delivering Choosing Health: making healthier choices easier, Department of Health Publications : London, p.7.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today