The Nanny State

Argus title : Sometimes we do need a nanny to care for us

A few days ago, my daughter came home from school with a new project – to prepare for a debate on the ‘nanny state’.

Frowning perplexedly and clutching her school bag, she asked “What‘s the nanny state?”. This triggered a discussion which continued off and on, for 2 days.

“What is the state?” she said, and “Why pick on nannies?”. Indeed.

It’s not surprising that nannies are used as a means of insult. Women who exert authority, however peripheral, are often ridiculed. Think for example of the intake of Labour MPs that quickly became known as ‘Blair’s Babes’. Or the way in which Margaret Thatcher, who to her shame coined the phrase “the nanny state”, was presented by the TV programme “Spitting Image” as a pseudo-man with hair on her chest.

Thatcher used the notion of the ‘nanny state’ as a stick to beat Labour. However, the concept has latterly experienced a revival and is increasingly entering main-stream debate. Nowadays it is as likely to appear in pro-government as anti-government newspapers.

The timing is perhaps not co-incidental. Resurgence of the term first became apparent around the time the Government – in line with the tabloids but against the advice of all reputable children’s organisations in the UK – decided to continue to allow parents to hit children. It became a stick with which to beat children’s rights campaigners.

And it has re-appeared in the media at just the right time to shore up the Government’s drive to ‘liberalise’ gambling and licensing laws. Labour back benchers are in open revolt because they know the general public wants stronger rather than weaker controls. The government needs all the help it can get to force through deeply unpopular policies.

The notion of the nanny state is an odd one. Not least because those who most often use the term as an insult are likely to belong to, or represent, the class that employs real nannies.

Many commentators have likened Thatcher’s own personal power over her occasionally hapless all male cabinet as being similar to that of a nanny over recalcitrant small boys.

For some of these men their childhood experiences with nannies will have been painful. For others, it will have provided the only real experience of good parenting that they had. Others still – arguably like Thatcher’s cabinet colleagues – will have come to resent the power which lower middle class females wielded over them.

Of course, the majority of British people have never had a paid nanny. But most have had an unpaid one – their grandmother. Usually referred to as “m’Nan”, she is almost always spoken of with respect and affection.

These nannies aren’t ‘from Norland’. They wear no uniform. Unpaid and untrained, the country depends upon them to give support to new parents, providing child care free so that mothers can go back to work. They care for children when they are sick and when parents can’t or won’t reduce their working hours.

Nans receive no special benefits and their incomes are usually tiny. They work for love and if their contribution to the economy were to be quantified, it would run into millions of pounds.

As a general rule, especially in the early years of her time as Prime Minister, Thatcher was able to effectively interpret or manipulate the way the public was thinking. However, Thatcher undervalued other women and made a bad error when she tangled with nannies. For the public has never really accepted that they are anything other than a good thing.

Thatcher was most effective when she invoked greed or fear in her supporters. When she railed against the ‘nanny state’ she undoubtedly tapped into the desire of some individuals to live their lives without social or financial restraint.

Unintentionally, however, when she referred to nannies, she reminded many people of the benign functions of the state – to educate and protect the young and care for the old and the sick, the vulnerable, weak and distressed. It was a big mistake.

And it is a mistake that Blair’s government continues to make. Few ministers have had the courage of Children’s Minister Margaret Hodge, who stated that “the state can be a powerful force for good in families and the community”. “Good nannies” she said, did not just tell you what to do but also made sure “you can make real and informed choices for yourself”.

Hodge has been savaged by Theresa May, her Tory counterpart. Despite this, she has spoken resolutely of the state’s duty to intervene in family life to support good parenting and prevent abuse. She has said “For me it is not a question of whether we should intrude in family life, but how and when….”.

Overall, the government has been destructively cautious in its proposals for intervention – in respect of combating abuse, stopping smoking, tackling obesity, reducing teenage pregnancy, curbing alcohol abuse and controlling gambling.

And, yet, apart from members of the far right amongst whom no state intervention is acceptable, there is no groundswell of public opinion against government action.

As Anna Coote recently wrote: “Most people recognise the value of governments acting on citizens’ behalf to minimise serious health risks. This has always been part of our political landscape – from pasteurisation of milk…vaccination programmes, to motor cycle helmets, speed limits and smoking bans on public transport…”.

A recent survey of 1000 people by the Kings Fund, a health policy think tank’, revealed that most people favoured state intervention and had no fear of a ‘nanny state’. For example, 66% wanted a smoking ban in public places; 73% wanted a stop on advertising junk foods to children; while 80% wanted government action to reduce the price of fruit and vegetables.

In fact, the Blair government’s exaggerated and highly publicised anxiety not to be accused of nanny statism could be seen as a cynical ploy to create the very back-lash it claims to fear.

The government has not hesitated in intervening to remove basic human rights in the fight against ‘terrorism’. Yet it is remarkably shy of intervention which might curb the profits of supermarket chains, tobacco companies or the drinks industry.

Arguably, there is now a clear ideological split within Labour between the vestiges of ‘Old Labour’ welfare socialism and Blairite social policies which are deeply attractive to large private companies – and the occasional large donor to the Labour Party.

Simon Clark, director of the smokers’ lobby group “Forest” articulates the conventional Tory/Blairite position on social policy: “Most of us want less not more government….few people want to be nannied from cradle to grave.”

I believe this is a misreading of the public mood and that, in fact, people are crying out for effective and accountable government. Parents are beginning to demand controls on firms that peddle junk food to children while ‘sponsoring’ school and sports equipment. They are tired of companies that talk about ‘choice’ while cynically bombarding their children with advertisements to maximise profits.

Arguably, people want to be free, not of a ‘nannying’ state, but of bullying by multinational companies, manipulation by the media and the craven inability or unwillingness of politicians to stand up to them..

The old idea of a welfare state caring for its citizens “from cradle to grave” is, and always was, an honourable one. Despite Thatcher’s attempts to dismantle it and Blair’s failure to defend it, people retain the dream of a just society providing housing for the homeless, universal health and social services free at the point of need, decent pensions for elderly people and adequate support for the sick, disabled and unemployed.

The first welfare state was born out of the Second World War. It is to be hoped that people who have been horrified by the drive to profit of recent decades and radicalised by the government’s conduct of war in Iraq may begin to struggle again for both the welfare we need and the state we deserve.

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