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Let’s hear it for nannies

Anna Bluston explains when nannying is good for us


he ‘Nanny State’ is a phrase that is often used, in a derogatory manner, by mainly right-wing press regarding any attempt by government to regulate anything. Any government initiative to try and cut Britain’s terrible record in teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, and debt, is met by accusations of ‘nannying’. The implication is that government is treating people like children, when surely adults in a democracy have the freedom and the right to make their own lifestyle choices?

This issue was discussed in the BBC2 series ‘What If’: a documentary-style programme that mixed fact and fiction, predicting what the dire consequences of our actions would be in the near future if we continue on the path we are on now. The series covered a range of topics including the loss of electricity, if women ruled the world, and, recently, ‘What if We Don’t Stop Eating?’, about obesity in Britain. It discussed what would happen by the year 2020 if rates of obesity continued to soar and reach crisis point. The role of government intervention was discussed, with the inevitable question: ‘is the government right to try to make us healthy anyway?’

Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University, is a strong critic of the lack of help from the government in tackling obesity and junk food. On the programme, he made the point that the government will wait until things are too late to intervene. He gives the example that an unnamed company selling snacks spends more money on advertising than the entire British Government. Lang bemoans the fact that ‘we spend a fortune on healthcare and yet the relevant department can't even be bothered to think about the causes of the nation's health problems’.

But is it the case of the Government ‘not being bothered’ to do anything to tackle this issue, or fear of accusations of ‘nannying’ from middle-England that is the cause of this inertia? Lang also raises the crucial question: ‘What’s wrong with nannies?’ and goes on to say that most people who criticise the nanny state employ nannies themselves, and that if the word ‘nanny’ was substituted for ‘parent’, then people would agree with it. As Philip James, Chairman of the International Obesity Taskforce also said on the programme, it is a fundamental Governmental responsibility to look after the health and welfare of the people.

The UK Health Secretary John Reid has called for a national debate on the roles that individuals, government, public services and industry can play in tackling obesity, so the programme’s topic was particularly relevant. Reid spoke about the food industry regarding the argument for self-regulation, and the obesity epidemic that is getting worse. America and Europe face an obesity epidemic which may shorten the lives of today's children by 10 years, as compared to their parents. The food industry said it would reduce levels of salt and sugar in processed foods five years ago, and still has made no significant attempt to implement this.

This case is true of all industry: profit is the primary motive. The health of the nation is not. Therefore, we need a regulator to put the interests of the nation first. With Cadbury’s and McDonalds sponsoring school sports equipment and textbooks respectively, and the persistence of junk food perpetrators to target the young, (including the under-fives), the worry of ‘nannying’ by impartial health groups to protect the vulnerable should surely not be our main concern. Those who argue that people have free choice and don’t need government interference to tell people what to do, completely overlook the relentless advertising shoved in our faces all day, encouraging us to consume continuously, pressuring us that we need always to be buying more clothes, food, houses, cars.

The aggressive tactics of banks in advertising credit is one such example: banks encourage loans to people who could never hope to pay it back, resulting in a nation with increasing debt spiralling out of control and misery for thousands. Regulation of profit-motivated businesses is surely a step in addressing this imbalance. Yes, of course people have free will, but real choice is an informed choice with alternatives, and providing information and advice on how to have a balanced, healthier lifestyle is surely welcome.

This argument is part of the much larger question as to the right of unelected, unaccountable big business to have such enormous control and influence over the world, when surely elected representatives should have more power. Self-regulation of any industry is clearly not enough. Its motive is profit so it is never going to put public health needs first. Therefore, as a minimum, regulation by a democratic legislative body, with responsibility for the public interest, is necessary.

John Donne, the Tudor poet, said ‘No man is an Island.’ All of us are products of our society, and the constant bombardment of corporate messages pressuring us to consume and borrow, solely in order to boost private profits, affects us all. Current society is short-termist and solely focused on immediate self-gratification, encouraged by unscrupulous big business. Having our politicians try to address the balance is surely no bad thing.