Strange to think that the substance of last week’s Queen’s Speech was first written in doggerel verse and set to music in the US in about 1944.
Some older readers may remember the jaunty tune – few, I suspect, the lyrics – which went as follows: “Button up your overcoat when the wind is free, take good care of yourself, you belong to me.”
Unlike America, with Uncle Sam, or Germany with the Fatherland, or Mother Russia, we British have never personified our nation as a family figureheaded by a benign relation. We did, however, invent the Nanny state. And the starchy, slightly forbidding figure of Nurse has gradually come to dominate our lives, giving us little rewards when we are good – a tax relief here, a benefit there – and never hesitating to slap the backs of our thighs when it is in our own interests to do so. Hence the advice about wrapping up warm because we do, after all, belong to Nanny.
“Eat an apple every day, get to bed by three, take good care of yourself, you belong to me.”
Today, of course, the requirement is not merely a single apple a day, but five pieces of fruit or vegetables. And if three o’clock seems late for bedtime, 3pm seems about right for Jack Straw’s proposed curfew on children.
“Be careful crossing streets, cut out sweets, don’t eat meats, or you’ll get a pain and ruin your tum-tum.”
More than 50 years on, those words still have a sharply contemporary ring. How many times has Nanny told us not to eat sweets and to avoid red meat? Today’s warnings, though, are expressed more brutally. Yes, the price of ingesting sugar and cholesterol is painful, but for a ruined tum-tum, read heart disease, cancer of the colon, diabetes, and death.
“Keep away from college boys when they’re on a spree, take good care of yourself, you belong to me.”
Nanny has her lighter moments and in today’s climate this may be taken as a jocular reference to school riots, playground rape and the like. But Nanny has the answer, or three to be precise. Education, education, education.
When it comes to nannying, the difference between New Labour and Old Conservative is historical. Nanny was the creation of Old Labour and was later taken up with varying degrees of enthusiasm by Conservativism, at first flourishing under Macmillan and then waning under Thatcher, but never losing firm adherents such as Kenneth Clarke. Just as sound economic management is said to be the stuff of Conservativism, Nannyism is in the very bones and fibre of Labour. It comes as second nature.
That is why a ban on tobacco advertising was in the Queen’s Speech. This prohibition is nannying for nannying’s sake. It will do nothing to curb the sales of tobacco, which is a mature market. But that is not really its intention. The aim is to be seen to be doing something that is morally upright and will win the applause of all those many mini-nannies who could not themselves live were they to be deprived of the exquisite pleasure of meddling in the lives of others.
“Steer clear of alcopops, don’t teach boys to box, never hunt the fox, or we’ll get a stick and beat your brains in.”
The drinks industry made the mistake of believing that, after 18 years of the Conservative version of nannying, the smack of firm nursemaiding had gone for good. In the relaxed atmosphere of free market economics, it forgot that the alcohol business is never far from the watchful gaze of the mini-nannies.
The creation of sweet-tasting alcoholic drinks whose packaging was plainly juvenile was undoubtedly a marketing triumph, but its repercussions for an industry that lives on the brink of having its ears boxed and being sent to an early bed may yet prove far-reaching.
“Wear a condom constantly, decaffeinate your tea, take good care of yourself, you belong to me.”
It will be interesting to see how the Health Education Authority fares under New Labour. Anthony Blair declares that he despises quangos, but since a Government that bans tobacco advertising, threatens to place further controls on the marketing of alcoholic drinks, and proposes to set up a body to watch over what we eat “from the plough to the plate” cannot do without some monstrous agent of nannying, and since the HEA is already in place, wild-eyed, sleeves rolled up, and eager to crack the whip, it is safe to assume its powers will be enhanced.
“Wash behind your ears, don’t you dare say queers, do away with peers, or you’ll be sorry and live to regret it.
“Call me Tony if you please, and the wife Cherie, take good care of yourself, you belong to me.”
The very worst kind of nannies are those who smile too much and affect a disarming informality. You know for certain that when they put up your taxes, circumscribe your freedoms, and meddle in those corners of life you thought were your own, it’s hurting them more than you. Of course it will all end in tears, it always does. It did for Mrs Thatcher, it did for Mr Major, and, as sure as there are stars in the skies, it will ultimately do so for Mr Blair. But nobody ever said growing up was easy.