“New Nagging” – a very Cameroon concept [UPDATED LOTS]

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Small bit of advice to Andrew Lansley. If you have to insist that you are not “nannying” that is almost certainly what you are doing. Finger wagging doesn’t stop being finger wagging just because you have the fingers of your other hand crossed behind your back.

I know I need to read the actual speech rather than the media precis, but my kneejerk reaction is: what on earth has happened to Reform? They used to be the thinktank that so-called ‘Orange Bookers’ slammed in everyone else’s face as the epitomy of laissez-faire economic liberalism. In the past few months they’ve transformed themselves into one of the usual thinktank subjects – constantly harping on about how government should intervene here, and regulate that.

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I’ve now read Lansley’s speech – I’ve even skimmed through Alan Johnson’s speech on obesity last month for good measure. I struggle to find much in the way of a substantive difference between the two. Both proudly unveil partnerships with the private sector. Lansley states “Providing information and example is empowering, lecturing people is not.” Johnson states “vilifying the extremely fat doesn’t make people change their behaviour.” There is a subtle difference there but it is not immediately apparent.

In the comments below, Dale Basset makes much of the fact that Lansley states that “Legislation will be a last resort.” Is he honestly suggesting that Alan Johnson would say anything different? It isn’t as if the government have been falling over themselves to introduce legislation. In fact though, it simply isn’t true. In Lansley’s bullet point list of steps to take, legislation – specifically European legislation – is right on the top of his list. Points 3, 5 and 8 are also primarily regulatory and/or concerned with state intervention.

His prescription for tackling adult obesity may be legislation-lite, but it is very heavy on “supportive rôle models and positive social norms.” Be honest, given that this is supposed to be aimed at adults, does it not sound more than a little patronising? He actually suggests a teenage version of Lazytown, but by implication he is suggesting an adult version as well.

And as for the children, he explicitly calls for more nannying, merely questioning the nannying style: “we need more of a ‘Mary Poppins’ than a ‘Miss Trunchbull’.”

Bearing all that in mind, he is lucky that he doesn’t get done under the Trade Descriptions Act for calling his speech “No excuses, no nannying.”

Finally, regarding the ‘no excuses’ stuff, it varies between the nonsensical and the deranged. He explicitly attacks the government’s Foresight report for sending out the ‘wrong’ message to obese people. Since when did obese people, with the obvious exceptions of Lansley and myself, sit around reading government reports (admittedly, this may change if they end up cancelling Countdown)?

The line “Tell people that biology and the environment causes obesity and they are offered the one thing we have to avoid: an excuse.” is all too reminiscent of John Major’s call for society to “condemn a little more and understand a little less.” In short, it is classic Tory Flat Earthism. Who cares if there may be important biological and environmental factors behind the increase in obesity? Whatever you do, don’t tell the fat people.

I speak from personal experience here when I tell you that we fatties are perfectly good at finding excuses ourselves. We don’t need government reports to provide them for us and we certainly don’t need populist politicians to protect us from ‘unhelpful’ things like scientific research. I’m happy to take responsibility for my own body shape, but that is another thing entirely from dismissing external factors. One external factor for instance is being singled out as the fatty every day throughout your school career. While I’m no scientist, I have no personal doubt that there is a link between obesity and mental health, as this interesting Ben Goldacre article suggests. Not only might the “no excuses” culture of Toryism not work, but if its main effect is to simply make fat people feel even worse about themselves it could prove counter-productive.

One of my favourite David Boyle books is Tyranny of Numbers. Way before its time, in it he comes up with a number of ‘paradoxes’ about our target obessed culture. Paradox Number Seven states that “When you count things, they get worse.” It certainly seems to me that the more our society obsesses about obesity, the bigger a problem it becomes. Why this has become such a big thing over the past decade I can only guess at, although I suspect it has something to do with irresponsible medical professionals getting carried away with numbers which suit their budget submissions, and a burgeoning diet industry that can now afford to hire sock puppeting lobbyists (and even MPs). I look around me and don’t seem to see much more obesity than there was 20 years ago, yet everyone I know with a bit of muscle on them is BMI classified as obese. It strikes me that a proper ‘conservative’ attitude would be to not get carried away with all this at all. And ultimately, it if boils down to a choice between traffic light labelling on food and having Chris fucking Hoy rammed down my throad as the latest Lansley-approved ‘rôle model,’ I’ll stick with the regulation thanks.

3 thoughts on ““New Nagging” – a very Cameroon concept [UPDATED LOTS]

  1. To be fair to Andrew Lansley, both the speech and his subsequent comments this morning were pretty explicit in stating that this initiative is NOT about government intervention or regulation, but rather is a case of “legislation as a last resort” – the idea is not to (ineffectively) lecture people, but to incentivise them to do the sensible thing. For example, he is not in favour of telling people which foods they should and shouldn’t eat.

    In our (Reform’s) defence, we did not write Andrew Lansley’s speech, and nor was it meant to reflect our principles – we were providing a platform for debate. In fact, Andrew pointed out at the top of the speech that there’s rather a lot (e.g. health funding) on which he and Reform disagree! Regarding our platform, I think our forthcoming papers on crime (September 2nd) and health (September 9th) will demonstrate conculsively that we are unwavering in our advocation of decentralised, free-market, low-intervention solutions for improving our public services.

    Dale Bassett
    New Media Politics Executive, Reform
    dale.bassett@reform.co.uk

  2. I’ve dealt with your points about Andrew Lansley in my update above. As for Reform itself, my concern is less with this speech (which as you say is just a speech) and more with the interventionist tone of your maths pamphlet a couple of months ago.

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