Reconsidering the Nanny State

Both parties believe we need nannying, so let them tell us what kind

It can be a little embarrassing to own up to having had a nanny in childhood. The admission suggests both privilege and regression – as if one’s younger self was cursed with a particularly infantile nature, requiring the services of both a mother and a paid help. It’s therefore only natural to find that among the more pejorative terms one politician can use to tar another is to accuse her of being in favour of a “nanny state”. What right-minded adult would defend such an odious concept, with its associations of government as a suffocating creature, looming over the hedgerows of the land, attempting to tie up one’s shoe-laces and hector one to tidy the toys before supper? Should we not be adults by now? What mature person would willingly own up to day dreaming of the guidance of a nanny?

Even without the pejorative tone, there’s a long tradition in political theory of a desire to get nanny out of the picture – and ensure that politicians, instead of attempting to hug and berate citizens, concentrate on minor, -morally neutral goals such as locking up criminals and protecting the borders. It has been the guiding theme of liberal politics for more than 200 years that governments should restrict their roles to minimising the harm that people can do to one another rather than attempt to save souls. They should not speak of loving or redeeming them. They should leave them to find their own way in peace. The contemporary liberal state follows Isaiah Berlin’s famous ideal of “negative liberty”, whereby government interprets its role in the most cautionary terms: it is an entity that prevents the grossest sources of harm but stands back from projects designed for the salvation of its people.

Liberal politics finds its greatest apologist in John Stuart Mill, who in 1859 published On Liberty, a ringing plea that citizens should be left alone by governments, however well-meaning they were, and not be told how to lead their personal lives. Mill argued that though “the ancient commonwealths” felt themselves -entitled to hold “a deep interest in the whole bodily and mental discipline of every one of its citizens”, the modern state should as far as possible stand back and let people govern themselves. Like a partner in a relationship who begs to be given space, Mill -ventured: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it … The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”

In referring to “the ancient commonwealths”, Mill was thinking of ancient Greece. Sparta had been the foremost exemplar of a nanny state, its people turning to their rulers to tell them whom to marry, what careers to choose and how much javelin-throwing to do. The Republic imagined by Plato was similarly directive in tone: just as there are experts in shipbuilding and carpentry, so – Plato suggested – there are experts in wisdom and government, and it is to these that we should defer for guidance on how to conduct our lives.

On the surface, the liberal argument has won a resounding victory. All Western democracies nominally subscribe to the ideals laid down in On Liberty. Governments are expected to create “neutral” public spaces, where a multiplicity of competing (but not overly-dominant) voices can be heard. Schools and universities are advised to stick to facts rather than advice. No publicly funded educationalist would dare to impart wisdom, for who could possibly say what this was? (Post-modern relativism and liberalism are handmaidens.) Meanwhile, religion should be kept well out of political office – not a contentious issue with modest Anglicans; trickier with jihadists.

Yet is modern liberal society as neutral as it suggests? The Marxists show particular insight here, for Marx consistently ridiculed liberalism for its claim that a state could be neutral. Every state will, in Marx’s eyes, be a nanny of some sort, whether she admits to this directive control or not. Or, as he put it, every state will feature relationships of power guided by an ideological sense of what is good: “The ruling ideas of every age are always the ideas of the ruling class.” We should therefore be vigilant when politicians start to speak of their desire to create a world with less nannying in it. At the heart of George W Bush’s rhetoric has been a call for government to get out of people’s lives in the name of freedom. He has presented his audiences with a choice: would they rather be watched over by a nanny or learn to be free?

Bush’s electoral successes are a sign of how appealing it can sound to outgrow nanny, for one of the great myths of contemporary life is that an adult is an entirely independent being. But Bush is not truly intent on creating a neutral or blank public realm. Recent history, both in America and Britain, shows that politicians of the right who speak of hating nannies are almost invariably the ones who end up the most nannying of all. Bush is not devoid of ideas on what a good citizen might be. A decision to cut funding for public broadcasting doesn’t mean that there will be no media, but simply that the vacuum will be filled by Fox News. Bush’s policies will not avoid promoting certain notions of fulfilment and militating against others. In other words, whatever his rhethoric, he too will end up generating a giant nanny with a particular personality and influence. There is no such thing as government that doesn’t restrict choices for citizens in ways that go far beyond what Mill imagined.

So perhaps it’s time to adjust the polarities we play with. The choice shouldn’t be between having a nanny or dispensing with her – the choice is between having a better and a worse nanny. We are always going to have propaganda; we are always going to have ideology. Nanny is here to stay. Therefore, rather than constantly berating politicians who dare to bring forward policies that publicly edge beyond the timid stated limits of liberalism (for example, those who dare to express a vision of the nation or of the family or of the ultimate purpose of education), we should encourage our politicians to speak and then submit their words to forensic analysis.

Embarrassment about a nanny state has held back the debate on the ends of politics. It means that politicians routinely fail to admit their prejudices and hold back from their sense of what is good, for fear of causing offence – while nevertheless slyly promoting their visions with the same reforming zeal as a leader of ancient Sparta.

The current Conservatives appear divided over how candid to be about the ends of politics. Half of the party, the declining David Davisian wing, still subscribes to a libertarian way of framing their concerns. The other, Cameroonian, side feels temperamentally sympathetic to the quasi-theological idea of government quietly held by New Labour – but it rarely admits to this attraction.

Yet the Cameroonians have firm ideas on what family life should be like. They hint that the purpose of state education should be to teach one how to be wise and good, not just -numerate and literate. They aren’t wrong to speak like this: whatever our desire to declare ourselves beyond the services of a nanny, we remain dependent on the con-sequences of political decisions.

It might be time for both parties to make their prejudices and distinctions clear. Both of them believe in a nanny state at heart. Why not bring the debate into the open so that we could have a clearer choice of which kind of nanny they were signing themselves up to?

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