The nanny state, like an old comic opera, is about to have a revival. A Labour Party policy document proposes an all-encompassing plan for micro-managing the national diet by law. Supporters of the ‘further, faster’ tendency will doubtless be ecstatic. The script is depressingly familiar - “Not what they want but what is good for them,” said Oliver Cromwell. If they won’t conform - we’ll make them.
Long ago, Alexis de Tocqueville warned against the growth of the centralising, paternalistic state, which would ultimately spare its people “all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living”. What de Tocqueville did not foresee was that the aspirations of the centralising state would run far ahead of its capacity to achieve them on the ground. The history of government over the past few decades is replete with examples of waste and bungling at every level, disproving time and again the old nostrum that ‘The man in Whitehall knows best.’
” Labour wants to micro-manage diets - but who will police this?”
Significantly, the Labour document as reported makes no reference to how its regulatory nirvana covering food content, alcohol, tobacco, physical fitness and retailing is to be implemented. Even if Labour ministers can get this lot through parliament, who or what is going to police its application to the lives of sixty million consumers and thousands of retailers? Trading Standards officers are too few in number to attempt the task, so a new bureaucracy will have to be created and with it, no doubt, a whole new avoidance industry.
Nor did I see any reference to food poverty, another fashionable idea. Those who once excoriated ‘cheap food’ are now fretting about the rising cost of food - a trend certain to continue. The necessary correction to a debt-fuelled financial crisis entailed a fall in real incomes for many but that is already on the turn. In any case, it may be an error to assume that all users of food banks are too poor to buy their own food. Nor should we expect much from yet another report by a group of MPs in an election year.
Governments can help people raise themselves out of poverty and poor diets by a combination of opportunities, incentives and education in a growing economy, not by regulatory proliferation and bureaucratic fiat.
Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant