Vote Tory, die early? No thanks

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The Independent Online

Excuse me if I sound a bit breathless, but the Government has just shocked me by doing all sorts of things I agree with. I assume some Labour MPs have the same giddy feeling after they were finally allowed to ban fox-hunting, promised a near-ban on smoking in public places and offered measures by the Health Secretary to tackle obesity. Of course the Opposition immediately started moaning about the "nanny state", led, if that is the word, by the Conservative health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, whose feeble response to John Reid's White Paper on health prompted gales of laughter in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Excuse me if I sound a bit breathless, but the Government has just shocked me by doing all sorts of things I agree with. I assume some Labour MPs have the same giddy feeling after they were finally allowed to ban fox-hunting, promised a near-ban on smoking in public places and offered measures by the Health Secretary to tackle obesity. Of course the Opposition immediately started moaning about the "nanny state", led, if that is the word, by the Conservative health spokesman, Andrew Lansley, whose feeble response to John Reid's White Paper on health prompted gales of laughter in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Is the Opposition really going to charge into the next general election as the party that will force us to continue being passive smokers and insist on our inalienable right to be obese? Vote Tory, die early - it's not a great slogan, and it won't improve their image if they also claim to be the party that supports cruelty.

Personally, I shall be very happy if idiots in pink coats carry on hunting and find themselves banged up by the constabulary. I am even hoping that the heir to the throne might be stupid enough to be among them; I'm afraid that the notion of the Prince of Wales being detained at Her Majesty's pleasure is just too wonderful to resist.

What I really don't understand about last week's attacks on ministers in the right-wing press is this: what is so terrible about a government that looks after the health of the population? When I vote in a general election, I don't expect the party I support to thank me, sit back and do nothing for the next five years. Admittedly I'm not very keen on going to war, if it can be avoided, but I don't recall anyone accusing the prime minister of "nannying" the Iraqi people when he decided they would be better off without Saddam Hussein. What could be bossier - and that is surely the accusation implicit in the phrase - than a British politician deciding he knows what's best for men, women and children who live thousands of miles away?

In reality, the "nanny state" is conjured up only when Tory MPs and their cheer-leaders in The Sun and the Daily Mail are rattled by something a Labour government is doing. When Conservative administrations took away trade union rights and publicly stigmatised homosexuals with their ghastly Section 28, we were supposed to believe it was just common sense. But when a Labour government recognises that millions of people are unable to resist the lures of advertisers, or the fast food joints that disfigure every high street, suddenly that's unwarranted interference. Yet what is the alternative? There is no doubt that smoking kills or that overweight people die early, usually after needing costly treatment for diabetes, heart disease or cancer.

Even if you take an extreme libertarian position and argue that's their business, the cost of treating them isn't. The secretary of state said last week that the proposals in his White Paper would save £30bn in preventable ill health over the next few years; it should also reduce the amount lost to employers by sick leave, which currently costs £11bn a year. These sums are so large that it would be criminally negligent for the Government not to act, and it could be argued that Reid's voluntary codes on advertising and reducing levels of sugar and fat in processed food do not go far enough. But it is at least a start, and the ban on smoking will be welcomed even by some smokers who find that social pressure makes it hard to give up.

So let's hear no more cheap jibes from the Opposition, which in any case merely expose the layers of class prejudice and unthinking misogyny that inform the views of right-wing politicians. If the Conservatives' collective unconscious is still haunted by the terrifying figure of nanny, that is their problem, not Labour's. I'm coming over all faint at the prospect, but I have to say three cheers this weekend for a government that intervenes to protect its citizens and wild animals.

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