Growing up nanny's way: We may not like the state's continual nagging, but we must realise it is for our own good

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The Independent Online
THE 'nanny' state is one of the compulsive issues of the day. Columnists, short of a thought, can always pour scorn on government attempts to meddle in our smoking, drinking, eating, driving, sexual or video-watching habits. Murmur the name of Supernanny Virginia Bottomley in the politest of company and you can be sure that somebody, if not everybody, will turn viciously abusive. That woman, they will say, is a prissy, meddlesome, arrogant, sanctimonious, do-gooding horror, a natural nanny whose career path forked fatally into politics. Who does she think she is?

The opportunities for these anti-nanny tirades seem to be increasing. Lately we have had video censorship, drinking, smoking - especially in America - single-parent families, a steady flow of prissy Bottomleyisms and, of course, the whole 'back to basics' fiasco in which nanny state was found to have some unfortunate habits of her own.

The argument against nannyism comes from both right and left. The right despises such an extension of state power; the left regards these good behaviour injunctions as a distortion and potential threat to the universality of the welfare state. John Mortimer, in whose jowly complacency both right and left appear to meet, summarised the point at the weekend.

'The history of our times,' he wrote, 'is the sad story of governments being increasingly anxious to tell us what's good for us.' And he raised the usual scare: 'How far distant is the day when a judge will be asked to pass a stiff sentence on a 65-year-old, smoking, carbohydrate-eating, coarse fisherman who declines to jog?'

Well, kicking La Bottomley is fair enough, we all do it and it's fun. But this is appallingly thin stuff. Of course, it's stupid for cabinet ministers to whinge on about diet, tobacco and jogging. Of course, civil service 'initiatives' in any of these areas should, on principle, be treated with contempt. But these are trivial sideshows. Only the most simple-minded would see them as arguments about whether or not we should have a nanny state. In reality they simply raise the secondary issue of how big nanny should be.

For the truth is that our state has been a nanny for a long time; it is just that certain types of nannying are regarded as OK by the likes of Mr Mortimer. Specifically, any nannying that can be disguised with a kind of Attlee-Beveridge political correctness is not called nannying at all. The National Health Service, social security, the whole paraphernalia of the welfare state, are all fine. And yet these are social engineering measures designed to limit freedom and adjust behaviour for the better - in short, nannyisms.

This is not to say they are wrong. It is simply to say that the modern British state is built on a high degree of intimate and moral intervention in our lives, and it is childish for the claret socialists who helped build it to try, in their dotage, to pretend otherwise.

They are, in any case, badly missing the point. For deeper thinkers the current wave of nannyisms and nanny-bashing is the surface froth on a largely concealed debate about the future of the liberal West. The debate is concealed probably because its electoral implications are unclear. But the point is lucidly identified by my colleague Hamish McRae in his new book The World in 2020, an admirable tour d'horizon of the state of the planet.

'There is a powerful economic case,' he writes, '(quite aside from the many social arguments) for wanting to try to persuade people to behave in an orderly way.' And he adds: 'Put bluntly, if countries wish to carry on becoming richer, then people will have to learn to behave better.'

The liberal West has been getting richer and behaving worse for some time. Indeed, in most people's minds the two processes are inevitably linked - societies steal, cheat, kill, rape, lie, take drugs and bribe more as they grow richer. Perhaps more significantly, they also grow lazier and stupider.

In the United States, for example, virtually any human problem can lead to litigation and yet more money for the bloated, vastly futile and economically debilitating American legal system. Plus, of course, they have lots of guns in the name of freedom and they use them to kill each other. In Britain, single parenthood is soaring and welfare has promoted the language of rights as opposed to the language of obligation. The average German works 39 hours a week, compared with 45 hours for the average Japanese. Our children go to school for 192 days of the year, the Chinese for 251. And so on.

Mr McRae's point is that, whatever your moral view of these developments, economically they have certain implications. Indiscipline has a price - it consumes wealth and saps energy. It is a luxury, seductive yet bad for us. Others, notably in East Asia, forgo this luxury and appear to be doing better as a result. They may steal our jobs and our prosperity, leaving us with a clear choice: either we behave better or we stagnate and decline.

We are living, therefore, with a painful contradiction. Our political aspirations are based on an ideal of personal freedom, while our economic aspirations are based on an ideal of perpetual growth. So far this has worked well, better, indeed, than any system in history. Now, however, the two ideals may be in direct conflict. We may have to choose between paying for our conception of freedom with diminished economic expectations or we may choose to modify our conception of freedom - in America, for example, by cutting the number of guns and lawyers - in order to protect our prosperity.

In reality, of course, the choice may not exist. Making people behave better in mature, liberal societies may not be possible. Certainly it looks out of the question if the recent history of the Tory party is anything to go by. The right wing of the party finds it impossible honestly to address problems of welfare and responsibility because of the speed and ferocity of the electoral reaction. Meanwhile, the left, Bottomleyish wing of the party attempts to tinker with behaviour in the most trivial, essentially irrelevant areas, drawing easy abuse from the Mortimers of the world and burying the issue in pamphlets and pomposity. In America, Hillary Clinton, a lawyer, has the pure cheek to harass smokers.

This may change. It is just about conceivable that relative economic underperformance could alter the political balance - people might come to accept uncomfortable measures if they think these will restore the possibility of economic growth.

But this assumes that they are persuaded there is a causal connection between private behaviour and public prosperity. So far the electorate appears to be unconvinced. The political rhetoric of spending money still swamps the rhetoric of making it. If British people get poorer, they tend to assume that other British people are not giving them enough money. If Americans get poorer, they assume they need a lawyer. We have told ourselves that the way it is now and has been for the past 50 years is not a passing fact of economic life but an entrenched right.

This probably means that liberal, Western governments are impotent. It is simply not possible to legislate for behaviour that society decides is moral and social rather than economic. The rhetoric does not exist. Or, as became clear with 'back to basics', the political classes do not really believe it themselves. They are no better, and perhaps slightly worse, than the rest of us, so how dare they tell us how to behave? All they are left with is the trite, gestural politics of Michael Howard's handling of the David Alton video violence affair.

This may be a good thing, for the moment. Our political classes do seem to consist of unusually little people who are never likely to earn the right to push us around. Furthermore, we do not wish to live in a Chinese or Japanese society. Western individualism is fun, creative and frequently glorious. It works for us.

The problem is that, when reading Mr Mortimer and others, or when hearing the stifled evasions of current political debate, it is hard to escape the feeling that it is all in the process of going horribly wrong. Our individualism has become a fatal softness, too dependent on an economic advantage that might rapidly be slipping away. If we still want prosperity and we don't want Chinese authoritarianism or Japanese conformity then the only alternative is to get tougher about ourselves. Perhaps calling it the persuasive state rather than the nanny state would make us feel better, but, either way, it amounts to the same thing - an admission that, occasionally, nanny really does know best.

'The World in 2020' by Hamish McRae is published by HarperCollins at pounds 20.