The collapse of liberty in Scotland

From hiding away cigarettes to hiking up the price of booze – Scotland is a world-beater in state nannying.

Stuart Waiton

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Topics Politics

The Scottish government has enforced yet another measure designed to help us help ourselves: it has passed a law requiring that all supermarkets hide cigarettes from public view.

This follows the enforcement of the public smoking ban in 2006; the raising of the legal age for buying cigarettes to 18 years; and a levy on cigarettes sold in supermarkets, which led some shops to stop selling them altogether. The aim is to create a smoke-free Scotland by 2035. One wonders if Scottish politicians also plan to make Scotland a heroin-, cocaine- and dope-free society, too. Good luck with that. Strangely enough, some Scots keep taking drugs despite their not coming in shiny packets or being sold at supermarkets.

With the proposed change to the voting age in Scotland, it’s possible that by 2035 16-year-olds will have the chance to elect their own government yet will be barred from buying cigarettes or even being allowed to see them.

It is not just cigarettes that Scottish officials are targeting. Alcohol prices are set to rise, again with the aim of creating a ‘healthier Scotland’. And Scotland’s public-health minister, Michael Matheson, wants to ban TV advertising of fatty foods before 9pm.

I took part in a debate about these measures on BBC TV’s Newsnight Scotland, alongside Dr Andrew Fraser of NHS Health Scotland and Dr Laura Williamson, a health researcher. Dr Fraser said we can’t have a ‘free choice and damn the consequences’ society. But at the same time, he said, it would be wrong to refer to the Scottish parliament’s behaviour-modifying measures as the actions of a ‘nanny state’. Rather, he said, this is an ‘informed state’. The government is simply providing people with information to try to help them make the ‘right decision’.

He said this is an important function of the state, because smoking and drinking have a negative impact on society. For example, smokers may die young, potentially leaving behind small children. And drinking, he says, impacts on the criminal justice system, causing crime and also creating broken families, leading to the further corrosion of society itself.

But these arguments are deeply disingenuous. Most people who smoke don’t die young; many, believe it or not, manage to give up smoking (despite those shiny packets). Most people don’t commit crimes when drunk, or beat their wives. And when Dr Fraser talks about the ‘dire state’ of Scotland’s health, what does he mean? The life expectancy for Scots born today is around 78.4 years – only a few years shy of Japan, which tops the international table at 82.7 years. By way of contrast, in 1900 life expectancy in Scotland was 45 years. Health is improving in Scotland, not becoming more ‘dire’. Dr Fraser’s non-nannying ‘informed state’ seems to be as much in the business of using dubious claims to try to change people’s personal behaviour as the old-style nanny state was.

In the Newsnight discussion, Dr Laura Williamson took, on the face of things at least, a more forthright approach to liberty and freedom. She described herself as an advocate of classical notions of liberty, and said she did not think poor people were stupid. However, she then argued that liberals like her are keen to protect the vulnerable from certain problematic and dangerous things, and thus there is a case for doing something about Scotland’s ‘health inequalities’.

There we have it, those weasel words, ‘health inequalities’. What is wrong with talking about simple, old-fashioned inequality? Why is that category being replaced by ‘health inequalities’? Could it be because where the idea of inequality referred to major problems like poverty and unemployment, which are hard to solve, ‘health inequalities’ allows such social issues to be redefined as simply matters of physical ill-health brought about by the fact that people who live on council estates apparently make the ‘wrong’ choices?

Dr Williamson, like many other liberals today, even classical ones, effectively argues that poor people’s socioeconomic situation means they don’t have the same capacity to make choices as middle-class people do. Poor people have a kind of choice inequality, apparently. ‘How free are these choices?’, she asked: ‘We are talking about multimillion-pound advertising industries. This is why cigarettes have been locked away and why we’ve gone for plain packaging.’

In other words, poor people are choice-poor, unlike the choice-rich middle classes – which means the poor need to be protected against the temptations of that big sweetie jar of cigarettes and alcohol, which must either be hidden away or made too expensive to buy. Through turning inequality into ‘health inequality’, and turning economic poverty into choice poverty, Dr Williamson and others are really pushing a radical form of paternalism. Sometimes, experts like Fraser and Williamson hide their illiberalism behind the idea that these behavioural policy changes are ‘good for the children’. The reality, though, is that too many of today’s politicians and experts think that we adults, especially the poor ones, are overgrown children who need constant help and guidance.

When I challenged Fraser and Williamson’s patronising approach to the public, Williamson shouted: ‘Haven’t you heard of addiction?’ Here, again, we have the representation of the hopeless vulnerable adult – the ‘addict’ – who can’t make real, rational, meaningful choices, and thus needs experts to make them for him.

Sadly, liberty is collapsing in Scotland, under the weight of political and professional elites who have become obsessive micro-managers and nudgers of people who were once thought of as moral, political, responsible agents. Williamson has a point: poverty, especially serious poverty, does make it harder for people to plan ahead and even to ‘plan’ their health. But so too does a culture that treats adults like infants, which calls into question our capacity to make free and responsible choices, and which invades poor estates in order to convince the people who live in them that they are vulnerable, pathetic and addicted, and in need of help.

Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee. He is the author of Snobs Law: Criminalising Football Fans in an Age of Intolerance. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics