It was as though the Virgin Mary had returned to Earth to denounce chastity. There she stood (not the Blessed Virgin, but public health minister Tessa Jowell) with a straight face and no sign either of having her tongue in her cheek or her fingers crossed behind her back, and proclaimed the end of the Nanny State.
It was not recorded how the assembled ladies and gentleman of the Press greeted this announcement, but it would be greatly to their shame had they not doubled up with laughter, shrieked with glee, rolled around the floor, and hugged themselves with the tear-streaming joy that only true mirth can bring. For that is the correct, though undignified, response when a Minister of the Crown summons the representatives of the media and invites them to swallow a bare-faced whopper.
Nanny, far from being dead, is in shockingly robust health and is even now picking up her skirts and dancing a jig over our freedoms. The term Nanny State was coined in the Seventies by Bernard Levin who was among the first to notice and deplore the authoritarian tendencies of the left. These, he wrote, are “invariably based on the conviction that some people, presumably gifted with special powers of observation and analysis, know better than the rest of us what is good for us – know better, that is, than we know ourselves.”
It did not stop there. Merely knowing what was good for us was not enough to satisfy Nanny. She felt compelled to tell us what to do, and to tell us again and again. Daily, her list of orders grew longer, her demands more ferocious. Smokers were severely chastised; drinkers required to think of their tipple in terms of potentially lethal units; eaters (a category reluctantly accepted as universal) presented with an ever-lengthening list of proscribed substances including fat, sugar, salt, and, depending on Nanny’s whim, tea and coffee.
Levin rightly saw nannying as a tendency of the left. But when Margaret Thatcher came to power and ushered in an unprecedented 17 years of uninterrupted Conservative government, moral authoritarianism, far from withering on the vine, flourished and grew ever more vigorous. The appalling Edwina Currie, who is the stuff of which nightmares are made, nagged a million chickens to death in a salmonella scare mainly of her own making. But, grotesque though she was, Edwina was merely the precursor of something far worse, Virginia Bottomley.
In her was the Nanny State truly personified. As Health Secretary, she went further than ever before, setting national targets for cutting smoking, drinking, and obesity, and laying down precise guidelines for diet and exercise, specifying exactly how many egg-sized potatoes constituted a sensible diet. These requirements were delivered in the patiently slow, roundly enunciated tones that Nanny uses when it is her misfortune to discover that her charges are retarded.
Then, one bright May morning, along came Tony, the People’s Government, and a Britain rebranded. And a little while later, along came Tessa to tell us the Nanny State was dead. To which those with eyes to see and ears to hear, replied “pull the other one”.
Levin was not wrong. The Conservatives, to their eternal shame, kept Nanny going, but at heart she is a creature of the left. Nannying is in the very blood of Labour. Mandy’s creation of New Labour is as skilful a piece of cosmetic surgery as you will see, but the heart, the guts and the spleen still respond to the same old impulses.
So when Tessa tells us that nannying was a peculiarly Conservative approach, which Labour rejects, she is either forgetful or naive. There is, of course, a third possibility: that she is downright stupid. Can she not recall that this Government, of which she is an ornament, had barely been in office a few days when it gave us a public demonstration of how to wash our hands? Or that this same administration proposes to ban tobacco advertising, cut the drink-driving limit to a single pint of beer and introduce random testing? Or that it supports a ban on hunting and (if Lord Irvine is to be believed) favours the introduction of a privacy law? Where can she have been when her colleague Cunningham banned the sale of all beef on the bone because of an infinitesimal risk to health?
Even as Tessa tells us of Nanny’s demise, the Green Paper, Our Healthier Nation, talks of providing information on the risks of smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise, of the importance of people checking the safety of their appliances, installing smoke alarms, driving safely, wearing seat belts, wearing cycle helmets, not drinking and driving, covering up in the sun, protecting others from second-hand smoke, attending breast and cervical screening, and stopping smoking. If Nanny is six feet under, we have just witnessed the quickest reincarnation outside the pages of Holy Writ.
Let the last word on Nannying go the Venerable Bernard: “First, they are denying the right we all have to pursue experience wherever it may lead us; second, they are, step by step, report by report, rule by rule, law by law, destroying our capacity to run our own lives. And it is the capacity to run our own lives which sets off the free from the unfree.”