Moments that made the year: Don't be scared of the nanny state; it means well
The new puritanism
Friday 26 December 1997
This is how the Tory offensive would look: Within months of coming into office, the Government has set about banning, stopping and disapproving of things. It is invading the citizens' private space, making bossy decisions on our behalf, officiously telling people what to do. With subtle hints, the Tories could suggest this is a lingering hang-over from the Communist command-economy mentality, an inevitable residue of years of socialism. Get the State Out of Our Hair! William Hague might proclaim, (if he had any).
Beef is the most recent liberatarian beef. How dare the Government ban beef on the bone because of a one in 600 million risk? I find the right's obsession with beef-eating fascinating. Personally, I couldn't care less if I never ate a rib of beef again. There's plenty of other meat to be had. But beef symbolism - all red blooded Bluff King Hal, Old England, Hearts of Oak, (or maybe coronaries of oak) - seems to strike some raw nerves with them.
Did the Government have to do it? Yes. The Tories fudged and avoided taking strong enough action at the start of the BSE crisis and made things infinitely worse. It may be an absurdly small risk, but Governments can't play around with public confidence in food, or importers' confidence in British products
However, once the Nanny State hounds are up in full cry, suddenly all kinds of other oddments of stories flare up to join the general hullaballoo. The housing minister is so PC he is banning doorsteps because the disabled can't get up in them in their wheelchairs. Mad? Scary?
No, it's a perfectly sensible policy for new housing, based on pilot schemes, showing how all new houses should be made easily adaptable for a lifetime - so as people get older they don't need to move.Boring, I know, but hardly worth a hue and cry.
Nor is our freedom threatened one iota by forbidding us to look at tobacco advertising. The tobacco industry would not spend billions on promotion if it didn't boost its sales. Most smokers (like me) desperately want to stop and no one wants their children to start, so the only freedom curtailed is the tobacco industry's avaricious desire to kill us all.
The only serious freedom issue at the moment seems to me to be fox-hunting, where a great many people's immense, if bizarre, pleasure is about to be abolished by the tyranny of a sentimental majority.
However, the Government still has time to wriggle out of this one, and it should. Eaters of battery chickens or farmed salmon are more cruel to animals over their whole lifetimes than fox-hunters ending a free animal's life in a brief, brutish manner. There is no good objective reason for banning it - and if it were a working class habit, no one would lay a finger on it.
However, if it is hunted down by a rampant Commons, it will not be because the Government willed it out of any nannyish instincts, but because it was too cowardly to protect an unpopular minority in the face of a stampeding majority.
Is this government really becoming the nanny from hell? I see very little sign of it in its policies. However, there is a new puritanism in its style.
They conduct themselves in sober, rather dull ways. You don't feel they are much fun, or that they have much fun - except maybe Peter Mandelson who has an unlikely louche set of friends of a very different Tory and Goldsmithian lavish entertaining kind. Or Robin Cook with his horse-racing.
They are a lot more puritanical than the last Labour government. Many Wilson ministers used to live a high old life, some of them pretty rich, very unlike Blair's family-centred, clean-living, down-home types.
Who gives dinner parties like Tony Crosland used to, or great soirees like Harold Lever? And the new puritanical style is more than skin deep. It's curious that New Labour ministers cannot possibly send their children to private schools, nor even grammar schools, nor use private health, while Wilson's old Labour cabinet was full of ministers with children at Westminster or St Paul's.
Harold Lever, a very rich Manchester millionaire, a key Wilson economic minister, was never subjected to scrutiny of his business affairs as Geoffrey Robinson has been.
It's partly that the post Murdoch-era Press has become so much nastier and less tolerant. The right-wing Press yearns for any sign of hypocrisy or champagne socialism among Labour ministers - so although the Blairs could afford to drink champagne for breakfast, lunch and tea, they wisely preserve their image as homey, churchy people. How long before Peter Mandelson has to sew M and S labels into his Armani clothes to show this interestingly extraordinary man is just a regular guy? Ironically, the champagne did flow freely in the old days when Labour ministers really did think of themselves as socialists.
However, that's all a matter of style, taste and image not of important substance. When it comes to sinister puritanism, the family values fiasco that sunk John Major's crew was a good lesson, well-learnt by Labour. When Robin Cook was caught out having an affair and then left his wife, it was a one-day ripple without the values resonance that would have made the story run and run had he been a Tory. That is reassuring. Labour may like a scrubbed family image, but they have had no truck so far with the kind of family values that seek to damn others for the lives they live.
I see no threat to the hard-won liberal freedoms that really matter. Indeed, I predict the steady rolling out of more.
For all the clean sincerity and earnestness of the new government, they are all of them deep-dyed liberals at heart: whatever the Conservatives say about freedom, (usually of the Ritz-dining variety) it is they at heart who want to constrict and constrain our lives whenever they get the chance. Give me Labour's worry over listeria in pasteurised cheese any time over the Tory Mary Whitehouse and Victoria Gillick tendencies.
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