The daddy state
The government now relates to us like a smack-happy father does to an errant child.
I’ve never been sure about the expression ‘nanny state’, whose mildness fails to capture the UK government’s steady slide to social-engineering authoritarianism and inclination to punishment. The term’s implicit infantilising of the public is certainly apt, but nannies are parental employees who tend to cajole and implore, while enticing their unruly charges with the promise of sweeties if the urchins behave. At most, a frustrated minder might resort to a light smack on the bum, more symbolic than painful. Closer to an old-school disciplinarian father who spares not the rod, the British state is increasingly given to an all-out wallop, the kind that sends a kid flying to the opposite wall.
Examples of the punitive and coercive nature of UK governance abound. It was once understood that British culture was inherently polite. Now decency is imposed from above through the enforcement of ‘hate speech’ laws. As a grammatical pedant, I just wish that British peelers were pounding on the doors of cowering homeowners for using the wrong pronouns because the offenders had typed on social media, ‘with him and I’.
The pursuit of Net Zero seems to justify unbridled interference with both commerce and individual liberty, because no restriction is too severe, unfair or poorly thought out, so long as it’s intended to ‘save the planet’. The free market is out the window. Embracing a Soviet-style command economy, as of 2024, Westminster will now idiotically fine the manufacturers of gas and oil boilers if they fail to ensure that four per cent of their sales are heat pumps. Shouldn’t the government instead fine customers for not wanting heat pumps? Effectively, the state will do just that. Manufacturers have announced a £300 fee per boiler installation to cover their fines.
This Clean Heat Marketing Mechanism is tantamount to the government fining Tesco for not selling enough guava-flavoured yoghurt, when the real problem is that the public hates guava-flavoured yoghurt. So now the recalcitrant shopper with a closed-minded attitude towards tropical fruits will have to pay 40p more per pot for the strawberry kind.
The same logic of guava-flavoured yoghurt pertains to officialdom’s cudgelling of companies to make them flog more electric vehicles. As of 1 January, auto manufacturers must ensure that 22 per cent of the new cars they sell are all-electric, a percentage that accelerates to 80 per cent by 2030. It’s a bit baffling just how these companies will bully customers into purchasing a product with limited range, a stonking price tag, inadequate supporting infrastructure, poor resale value and a disconcerting tendency to burst into flames. What’s not in doubt is the staggering size of the fines when the sales force, perhaps lacking loaded pistols to press to the temples of consumers on their forecourts, fail to meet the target: £15,000 per non-electric vehicle sold over the prescribed percentage. If I worked for an automotive manufacturer, I’d reconsider my career path and start selling guava-flavoured yoghurt.
Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) are gleefully enforced with more whopping fines. (Hats off to the brave residents of Lambeth in south London, who have stood rain and shine in hi-vis jackets with placards reading ‘£130 fine’ to warn motorists away from a poorly demarcated LTN trap laid for the unsuspecting, like a snake pit in Vietnam. Such selfless looking out for strangers constitutes not mere virtue-signalling, but some of the only genuine altruism I’ve seen in yonks.)
Famously, Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ scheme is hammering the owners of older cars in Greater London with a £12.50 fee per day, which is making no real difference to the city’s air quality. Yet by jacking up the cost of popping to the supermarket, the surcharge could make that guava-flavoured yoghurt more expensive than a fifth of cognac.
British officialdom’s taste for coercion is also evident in Oxford, Bristol and Sheffield’s plans for ‘15-minute cities’, a concept that sounds innocent enough: arrange for most amenities to be available within a short walk or cycle ride in every neighbourhood. It’s innocent aside from the implicit mass surveillance, the time and energy inefficiency of forcing A-to-B traffic to a roundabout outer perimeter and the ever-ubiquitous fines – in Oxford, for violating this proposed automotive kettling, you could pay up to £70.
Then there’s prime minister Rishi Sunak’s illiberal proposal to make the purchase of cigarettes illegal for anyone born after 2008. It’s not good enough that younger Britons are taking up smoking tobacco at steadily decreasing rates of their own accord. No, no. They must be forced. Not only has Labour been toying with the same heavy-handed policy, but Keir Starmer is also mooting the idea of making vaping prescription-only.
Banning has become a national sport. We have bans on XL Bully dogs, sales of ivory including in antiques (the elephants in question being, you would think, well dead), and all the f-words: foxhunting, fur farms, foie gras. Given the soaring cost of living, maybe we should thank our lucky stars that the ban on buy-one-get-one-free bargains and any other multibuy deals on foods high in fat, salt or sugar has been delayed until 2025. So cram the freezer with those half-price frozen chips while you still can.
It’s on the council level that British authorities have excelled themselves in their zeal for compulsion, chastisement and constraint – the more niggling the regulation the better. Not content with throwing their weight around by bulldozing whole properties and extensions into landfill over minor violations of planning laws, councils now levy fines for leaving bins out, tree removal, school absence, school drop-offs, barking dogs and littering. In 2018, Peterborough issued 861 fines for spitting alone. People have been fined for dropping a single biodegradable orange peel or apple core, pouring coffee down the drain or losing a tenner.
Councils’ fixed-penalty notices for loitering at a bus station, napping in public and sleeping in a vehicle might seem to suggest that the powers-that-be oppose lethargy and wish to encourage exercise – save for the fact that councils also ban skateboarding, climbing trees, carrying golf bags in a park and taking your dog to the beach. Other offences that incur Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) fines include picking up rocks, looking in bins, swearing or shouting in public, pigeon feeding, gathering in groups of two or more (and this was before you-know-what) and selling lucky charms. While Slough has banned possession of actual slingshots, Wiltshire has even banned the possession of stones or ball bearings ‘capable of being launched as a projectile’ by slingshot. Southend-on-Sea has banned people from ‘using bikes in a way that has a negative effect on others’. Given that a huge proportion of ‘others’ detest cyclists and would like them all to die, that could presumably end cycling in the area altogether.
The direction of travel is clear. This fussbudgeting micromanagement will only get worse. In 1997, councils issued 727 fines for littering. By 2017, the total was 63,000 (I failed to find a fresher figure, but I’d wager my net worth that by 2023 that number went anything but down). In England and Wales, PSPO fines have soared from 1,906 in 2016 to 13,433 in 2022 – up over 700 per cent in a mere six years. This summer, Rishi Sunak’s Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan increased the maximum fines councils can levy by between 50 and 350 per cent for littering, graffiti, fly-tipping and those who ‘breach their household waste duty of care’, whatever that means. The government also announced that the fines councils could levy for any PSPO violations may multiply by five times, from £100 to £500.
The mother of all control freakeries was, of course, Covid, an era I’m loath to revisit, except to observe that the state assuming the prerogative to send us all to our rooms, to install epidemiologically inane regulations like the ‘rule of six’, to dictate we order a ‘substantial meal’ with our pints, while our lofty representatives disappeared up their own arses debating whether a scotch egg counts – the list of idiocies is a great deal longer – whet officialdom’s appetite for the whip hand. The fine for organising a protest against these very regimes was £10,000 – a deliberately life-destroying sum, no pat on the behind but a wallop to the wall. While we proles shudder to recall those years, many a politician and civil ‘servant’ must gaze upon the pandemic period with misty-eyed nostalgia. Those were the days they could order the peons to do absolutely anything – stand on their heads, do a little jig in their pyjamas, recite the Lord’s Prayer in pig Latin. The sole consolation for their lost omnipotence is the capacity of Net Zero to bequeath them the very same god-like powers.
Aside from making the obvious observation that all this punitive, petty and presumptuous meddling makes Britain an unpleasant place to live, I would make two points. If we are being treated like children, we should remember that kids react to oppressive authority with either timidity and terror or resentment and rebellion (I know which kind I am). Harsh social control only works with the meekly compliant. The authorities seem to know this. All these fines, bans and regulations are aimed at the law-abiding. Meanwhile, savour the irony that while an elderly woman who drops an orange peel on the pavement is zealously prosecuted, the nation is rife with organised shoplifting and knife crime. You can’t carry a golf bag in a park, but if instead you burgle houses, steal cars or mug school children for their phones, the statistical chances that the authorities will turn a blind eye are spectacularly high.
The larger problem is what Britons, and Europeans in general, expect of government: too much. When you demand the government solve all your problems – from whether you’re fat, sick or eat too much processed food to the collective temperature of the entire planet – total responsibility translates to total power. The solutions poorly qualified if not incompetent politicians concoct are likely to engender the worst of both worlds: clumsy and ineffective on the one hand, onerous and expensive for individuals on the other. How much better things would be if we resigned ourselves to the idea that the state should basically constrain itself to maintaining some rough semblance of public order and providing for the common defence. Who knows? We might then accept responsibility for solving our own problems. That is, we might, to coin a phrase, take back control.
Lionel Shriver is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book, Abominations: Selected Essays from a Career of Courting Self-Destruction, is published by the Borough Press.
Picture by: Getty.
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