Our humourless, illiberal, curmudgeonly rulers
From smoking bans to sin taxes, Brian Monteith finds that Scotland has proved itself a willing victim for the practices of the nanny state’s angrier successor: the bully state.
At the start The Bully State, his rambunctious account of the nanny state’s recent history, Brian Monteith argues that the term ‘nanny’ is too cuddly a word for the alliance of ‘puritans, control freaks and prohibitionists’ who are waging war on individual freedom on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nanny, he says, has lost her patience with us. Her policies of re-education have failed to ‘nudge’ us towards government-approved behaviour. Targets have not been met. Too many calories are being consumed. Too many units of alcohol are being knocked back. Some of us are even smoking and using offensive language. Not so much disappointed as angry, she has now turned bully. What happens now is going to hurt us a lot more than it hurts her.
In some ways, Monteith has written a British companion to David Harsanyi’s self-explanatory Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotalling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children (2007). Both books take a chapter-by-chapter swipe at the ongoing battles over diet, alcohol, smoking, motoring and surveillance, and both feature an interchangeable cast of professional reformers. Wielding spurious research and chanting their ‘think of the children’ mantra, these neo-prohibitionists will be familiar to anyone who has read a newspaper in the past decade.
If California provided Harsanyi with the richest seam of big-government meddling to mine, that role is fulfilled here by Scotland, much to the chagrin of its author, a former Conservative member of the Scottish parliament. It is a sign of how quickly nanny has been working that many of the policies merely being proposed by those wacky Californians when Harsanyi wrote his book (banning incandescent lightbulbs, banning the smacking of children, banning teenage sunbed use) have since become law in Scotland. It is an irony not lost on Monteith that Scottish devolution did not so much lead to a Braveheart-inspired dash for freedom so much as a rush to become the international bellwether for what he calls ‘lifestyle fascism’.
While the Scots embrace the bully state with ‘Calvinist relish’, other countries strive to keep pace. Politicians around the world now regard being the first to ban an activity as ‘a symbol of a town or country’s virility’. When New York City banned trans-fats in restaurants, a distraught Chicago alderman said: ‘I’m disappointed we’re losing bragging rights to be the first city in the nation to do this.’ (Perhaps he took consolation when Chicago was later ranked number one in Reason magazine’s list of America’s most illiberal cities.)
A true libertarian, Monteith identifies the seat-belt and motorcycle helmet laws introduced 30 years ago as the first tentative steps down the slippery slope. Various parliamentarians warned that the ‘for your own good’ argument that lay at the heart of these laws would open a Pandora’s box of meddlesome legislation. They were ignored. Wearing a motorcycle helmet was, after all, a sensible precaution and the freedom to not wear one was a small freedom indeed. Who would miss it?
One person who did miss it was the Second World War veteran Fred Hill who had always worn his beret while motorcycling and was not going to let this new-fangled law change the habit of a lifetime. Like Norman Stanley Fletcher, Hill accepted the occasional prison term as an occupational hazard even if, in the more innocent times of the 1970s, the local police force often turned a blind eye. On one occasion the desk sergeant left his cell door open and told Hill to ‘bugger off when no one’s looking’.
In the years that followed, countless campaigners, do-gooders and moral guardians invoked the precedent set by the helmet and seat-belt laws to compel other members of society to do what was thought best for them. Ever-dubious estimates of the money smokers, drinkers and motorists were costing the National Health Service were used to justify a raft of regulations, bans and ‘sin taxes’. Each new restriction inspired another. Few expected the ‘sin tax’ on cigarettes to inspire campaigns for higher taxes on alcohol, petrol, meat, sunbeds and carbon dioxide. Who really believed that schools would ban Marmite from being served inside and ice-cream from being sold outside? Even five years ago, the idea of forcing shopkeepers to hide their tobacco products from view or banning pub-goers from standing at the bar would have been almost universally mocked (the first of these will soon become UK law, the second has been trialled in several towns).
If the mandatory wearing of helmets and seat-belts marked the beginning of the nanny state, the smoking ban raised the curtain on the bully state. The smoke-free legislation was such a blatant attempt to discourage and ‘denormalise’ a legal activity that the fig-leaf of passive smoking could barely disguise the overt paternalism that lay behind it. In keeping with nanny’s transformation from Mary Poppins to Biffa Bacon, no exemptions could be permitted and no tolerance could be shown. Rather than being told to ‘bugger off when no one’s looking’, ‘smoke-ban rebels’ like Hamish Howitt and Nick Hogan were driven to the brink of bankruptcy after being convicted of ‘permitting smoking to take place’ on their premises.
The smoking ban represented a milestone because it successfully pitted a largely ambivalent majority against a dwindling and cowed minority, while blurring the distinction between public and private property at the same time. The coalition of government agencies, professional reformers and state-funded charities that engineered the smoking ban set the template for the neo-temperance campaigners, green activists and food faddists who came in their wake.
These activists – or ‘storm troopers’ as Monteith’s describes them – are far closer to the government than the public is led to believe, both in ideology and funding. Action on Smoking and Health, Alcohol Concern, Barnardo’s and dozens of other ‘campaigning charities’ receive so much money from the state that they could almost be considered the government in drag. Through the use of rigged public consultations, dubious opinion polls and policy-based evidence, this self-serving elite manufactures a demand for greater state power.
A favoured tactic is to float a new piece of Draconia in the press and if it is met with anything less than howls of derision, it gets the go ahead. The public, says Monteith, are then fed ‘a steady stream of news releases, PR stunts, giveaways and junk science dressed up as authoritative research from quangos and politically active charities that have morphed into lobby groups’. If, on the other hand, the idea gets shot down (such as the plan to force people to buy smoking licenses or banning people from buying more than three drinks in a pub), it is popped into a file marked ‘Too Soon’, to be reopened at a later date.
The book covers much ground. Eating, drinking and smoking feature prominently, since they have been propelled into the frontline by an over-mighty public health lobby. But, as Monteith argues, this regulation of lifestyle is a symptom – albeit a far-reaching one – of a wider shift of power from the individual to the state. The expansion of CCTV, the erosion of trial by jury, identity cards, censorship, health-and-safety hysteria and the DNA database constitute a ‘bullies’ charter’ made more dangerous by the ‘jobsworth mentality’ of British officialdom.
At the heart of Monteith’s thesis are the ‘neo-socialists’ who have, he says, ‘forsaken their jackboots, their boiler suits and their AK-47s and are instead using surveillance, regulation, guidance, inspection, by-laws, and local summary justice as weapons to subjugate us’. This argument will have an allure for some, even if the author tends to view the Thatcher era through rose-tinted spectacles. The Iron Lady did, after all, give us the seat-belt law and was keen to issue identity cards to football fans.
Monteith does, however, accept that what he calls ‘lifestyle socialism’ has infected all political parties. While he hopes that a future Conservative government will put nanny back in her box, he ruefully concedes that many Tories harbour their own patrician hobbyhorses. He has little faith in the Liberal Democrats ever living up to the first half of their name and despairs of the Scottish Nationalists and Greens doing anything other than putting their own authoritarian stamp on the legislature wherever they get the chance.
Far from being the preserve of the authoritarian left, then, big government appeals to politicians and activists of all persuasions. Indeed, it is the very fact that the bully state serves so many vested interests that makes it so formidable. Although he is convinced that any system of government built on repression and prohibition will be doomed to failure, Monteith paints a convincing picture of a many-headed beast comprising ‘fake charities’, government departments, NGOs, ‘earnest do-gooders’ and ‘malevolent power grabbers’, to say nothing of the over-eager epidemiologists and the ‘monstrous’ British Medical Association.
Some are motivated by their own obsessions, some by government targets and others by the need to keep the grant money rolling in. Their one shared characteristic is a complete lack of humour, not an accusation that could fairly be levelled at Monteith himself, who proves to be an affable and gregarious guide throughout, liberally scattering his narrative with personal anecdotes and stories of the ‘you couldn’t make it up’ variety.
Readers who have not visited Britain for several years may be shocked by the lurch towards authoritarianism described in this book. Those who have witnessed the creep of the bully state first hand will be enraged, amused and informed in equal measure. Californian politicians can simply use it as an instruction manual.
Christopher Snowdon is author of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-smoking, published by Little Dice. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
The Bully State: The End of Tolerance, by Brian Monteith, is published by The Free Society. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)