Colonel Gaddafi and his mad bald son are not the only has-been regime desperately clinging to power. In Britain, too, a gaggle of once-powerful but now isolated authoritarians is doing everything it can to continue dominating people’s lives. These unelected know-it-alls exerted an extraordinary and baleful influence over public life during the 13 years of New Labour rule — banning things they didn’t like, scaring the public witless, demonising fat kids as the great evil of our age — but they have seen their power wane in the Liberal-Conservative era. And they aren’t happy.
Yes, it’s the nanny staters, those public health officials and their journalistic cheerleaders who took killjoyism to dizzy new heights between 1997 and 2010. Once invited to advise government officials, to provide data to justify illiberal initiatives such as the public smoking ban, to lecture the British masses about how flabby and feckless we are, this nanny lobby now finds itself elbowed aside by a nudge lobby, with David Cameron and his coterie preferring to ‘nudge’ people towards healthy living rather than strongarm us towards five-a-day, safe-sex, no-booze purity in the fashion of those old monstrous Mary Poppinses. The nannies are fighting back. They have declared a dirty war on the nudgers, desperately hoping that they can win back their throne of moaning about the state of public health.
The unseemly civil war between nannies and nudgers kicked off last year, as it became clear that the new Lib-Con government would dispense with much of New Labour’s ban-happy, legislation-heavy nannying. David Cameron set up a Behavioural Insight Team in Downing Street, inspired by the ideas contained in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s post-nanny state tome Nudge: Improving Decisions about Wealth, Health and Happiness. Not two months after the Lib-Cons took power, Cameron’s health secretary, Andrew Lansley, gave a speech to the British Medial Association — birthplace of much of New Labour’s nannying nonsense — in which he said that ‘constantly lecturing people and trying to tell them what to do can be counterproductive’.