Get the state off our dinner plates

The powers-that-be are so disdainful of the public they even feel the need to tell us what to eat and how to eat it.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

On 8 October, Rob Lyons took part in a debate on food panics at a Liberty Lounge event at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. His opening comments are published below.

Food scares have become ubiquitous in recent years. Indeed, some scares been repeated so regularly that they are often accepted as common sense. Yet while some of these scares have a kernel of truth to them, they have also been exaggerated, with negative consequences for our personal liberty.

So, for example, we are regularly told that we are facing an ‘obesity timebomb’, which will result in a significant proportion of the population dying at an early age after years of ill health. Saturated fat is regarded as a major cause of heart disease, to such an extent that the traditional English breakfast is nicknamed the ‘heart attack on a plate’. We are frequently told to cut down on our salt intake, because salt raises blood pressure. Sugary drinks are regarded as a leading cause of obesity and diabetes. Today, one medical doctor blogged about the ‘genocide of our children’ caused by sugary foods.

As I said, there is an element of truth to all these things (except the genocide thing, of course), but they are blown out of all proportion. Those who are very overweight do, on average, die before those of ‘normal’ weight. But the definition of obesity is so wide that many merely chubby people, whose life expectancy is little different to those with a government-approved body weight, are also included in the scary statistics. The idea that saturated fat ‘clogs our arteries’ has been widely criticised. Salt has little effect on the blood pressure of the majority of the population; certainly, declaring national targets for salt intake seems daft. And while overdosing on sugar might make diabetes more likely, it is at best a partial explanation for rising diabetes rates.

Hyping up food scares is bad news for our relationship with food. It makes us constantly question if the food we eat might eventually kill us. It’s difficult to enjoy a meal if you are wondering if it might wreck your health. This effect is greatly magnified when it comes to watching what our children are eating.

One thing that is certainly more unhealthy than anything we might eat is the corrosive effect that food fearmongering has on our personal freedom. It is surely a terrible indictment of contemporary attitudes to liberty that even our right to decide what to eat is now being called into question.

Underneath all the dubious scientific claims about food and ill health, there is an instinct among lobby groups, the medical profession, civil servants and politicians to regulate what we do in minute detail. We cannot be trusted, it seems, with even the most mundane decisions about our lives. The existence of prohibitionists and petty control freaks is not new, of course. But the fact that governments now enthusiastically support such groups is a fairly recent development. In the past, politicians would have recognised that some areas were out of bounds for state intervention, and might even have believed, on principle, that maintaining autonomy was the proper thing to do. Now, the lifestyle micromanagers are pushing at an open door to the corridors of power.

A good illustration of the state of political thinking came shortly after the General Election in 2010. The Lib-Con coalition’s freshly appointed health secretary, Andrew Lansley, attended the conference of the ‘doctors’ union’, the British Medical Association, and made some comments about crusading chef Jamie Oliver. Lansley argued that Oliver’s penchant for lecturing people had proved to be a failure. His comments were widely interpreted as indicating a more hands-off approach from the new government. But what Lansley actually said was that everyone agreed that we needed ‘behaviour change’, but that using ‘nudge’ style techniques would be better than nagging. In other words, there was no great difference of principle between St Jamie and Andrew Lansley, just a disagreement over the appropriate way of getting us all to do ‘the right thing’. As it happens, ‘nudge’ seems rather out of fashion now, replaced by bans and taxes.

I don’t think we do need ‘behaviour change’. I don’t think governments know what is best for us. Nor does the state have a right to tell us what to eat; to tax us to change what we eat; to use behavioural psychology to nudge us to eat something else; to ban takeaways from opening near schools lest they corrupt our children into bad food habits; to ban advertising of unapproved foods; or to ruin the school curriculum by reducing it to endless lessons about healthy living.

Far from saving us from ourselves, the diet of food scares has been the dubious excuse for a panoply of illiberal policies.

The government now spends a lot of money on financing certain non-governmental groups that campaign for bans and restrictions on cigarettes, alcohol, fast food and other habits deemed unacceptable. This gives the impression of public support for government intervention in our lives, when in reality the public has barely had a look in. The use of such state-financed ‘sock puppets’ is detrimental to democracy. Politicians are elected to make decisions on behalf of us, the electorate, and should not think of themselves as being answerable to this ‘echo chamber’ of lobby groups and self-appointed health guardians. The real problem today is that the political class lacks any sense of the importance of individual freedom, thus allowing more and more illiberal measures to be waved through.

Debating lifestyles may seem trivial next to the big issues, such as the economic crisis. But it is on this territory of personal choice that the relationship between the state and the individual is being redefined, at the expense of our freedom.

Last weekend, I spent the night in a bar in the Greek capital, Athens. On the surface, it was much like the UK, with a smoking ban in place and very visible ‘No smoking’ signs on all the tables. But the locals were puffing away regardless. Flouting a smoking ban is by no means the most profound political statement, but that sense of independence, of simply not accepting the rules laid down by the state, was refreshing nonetheless. We could do with a bit of that bolshie assertion of personal autonomy in the UK, too.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

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


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