Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Behind The Executive Smoke Screen
The imposition of a smoking ban sums up the hypocrisy of our nannying state

After last week’s vote to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, the health minister, Andy Kerr, boasted that he was proud to be part of “this historic day in the Scottish parliament”. When ministers equate the triumph of an anti-smoking crusade to a major historic occasion, you can only conclude that they have set their political ambitions rather low.

Last May, the Scottish Executive enjoyed another well-deserved first when it distributed T-shirts emblazoned with the logo, Mine’s A Double, intended to encourage women to stop binge drinking by having at least two drink-free days a week. And lest anyone fears that the Executive might run out of bad habits to moralise about – relax. Soon, there may be another historical occasion at Holyrood if the bill designed to ban two-for-one supermarket drinks promotions deals and pub “happy hours” is passed.

After Kerr expounded on the momentous significance of the smoking ban – which comes into force next spring – he remarked that “it shows how Scotland can lead the UK”. Far from leading the way, however, the Scottish Executive is simply walking in parallel with governments throughout the Anglo-American world, where contemporary politicians and civil servants devote much of their time to whinging about people’s bad habits. According to received political wisdom, education is failing because parents don’t spend enough time helping their children with their homework. And the quality of healthcare would massively improve it we all stopped hanging out in fast-food joints and gave up alcohol.

On a recent trip to Washington, I was struck by the utter bankruptcy of the political imagination. When I asked about policies designed to improve the quality of health care, I was offered long lectures about efforts to discourage obese people from overdosing on cheeseburgers. There was unanimity across the political divide that bad habits had to be banned.

And of course, everyone wanted to do something about sex. Some on the right were worried that young people were having too much of it, while a few liberals were concerned that kids did not talk enough about it with their sex education teacher. The moralising imperative that shapes this discussion is very similar to the assumptions that inform another historic initiative, the Scottish Executive’s action plan for improving sexual health.

The growing tendency to transform social issues into the problem of individual failure reflects the profound sense of political exhaustion that afflicts the Western world. Many elected officials have drawn the conclusion that it is easier to attempt to modify people’s behaviour than to tackle problems rooted in the structure of society. Consequently, energies that were once devoted to transforming society are now directed towards encouraging the colonisation of everyday life. Passions that were previously directed towards defending the free market, developing the welfare state or even pursuing socialism, are now focused on individual lifestyles.

From Edinburgh to London through to Washington, there is a discernible tendency to politicise the minutiae of people’s existence. As a result, issues that were previously unheard of as subjects of controversy can arbitrarily dominate the headlines and then disappear. That is why the question of which foods children eat during their lunch hour erupted into a major pre-election issue earlier this year.

Governments are continually embarking on crusades that target people’s health, sex lives, parenting strategies, alcohol consumption or attitudes and behaviour towards others. The politicisation of individual lifestyle is inversely proportional to the depoliticisation of public life. Consequently, public policy has shifted from engaging with responsible citizens to treating them as if they are biologically mature children. In the Reagan-Thatcher years, there was a distinct trend towards turning the citizen into a customer. More recently, this downsizing in the status of the responsible citizen has accelerated and given way to the Holyrood model that infantilises people as clients, patients or vulnerable individuals in need of support.

Unable to envision a strategy for change in the public sphere, the political elites have opted for the management of micro issues. Numerous technical matters that were never the provenance of officialdom have unexpectedly become the focus for initiatives. The Westminster government is preoccupied with the concern that its clients may be “lacking in the knowledge, skills or cooking equipment necessary to prepare healthy meals”. Thankfully we now have the department of health’s Choosing A Better Diet: a food and health action plan that informs us that healthy eating is better for us than subsisting on an unhealthy diet. In Scotland, you have the government-backed healthy eating helpline – so underused, that it cost the taxpayer £115 per call in its first year. The same patronising formula is adopted by a booklet, Dads And Sons, published in London by the department of education and skills. In a section advising fathers how to help sons with their homework, it states: “Make sure he’s got somewhere comfortable to work away from the TV.” Dads And Sons assumes that fathers are just grown-up children who need to be reminded of the blindingly obvious.

The rhetoric of “support” is frequently used to justify policies which demand that people conform to the government’s norms. “Support” is always extended to those whom the government thinks are in need of help – whether they like it or not. Support rarely means assisting people to improve what they are already struggling to do. In practice, it means placing pressure on them to adopt a course of action favoured by government. “Promote health by influencing people’s attitudes to the choices they make” is how one UK government strategy document puts it. Supporting people to make choices actually means getting people to do what government believes is in their best interest. From the standpoint of this paternalistic vocabulary, informed choice means the adoption of behaviour that is dictated by government.

Significantly, the trend towards intervention in private life is very different to the previous approach to health and social policy. Those who support the project of colonising the private sphere sometimes claim that their approach simply continues the progressive tradition that has seen the abolition of child labour or the provision of school milk. They claim their policies are designed to avoid problems that can compromise public health. However, we shouldn’t confuse public health policies that seek to create the conditions for healthy living with those that attempt to manage individual behaviour and manipulate people’s emotions. Campaigns for “healthier lifestyles” are less about improving our health than indicating how we ought to live. And the project of saving us from ourselves is promoted by the desire to save political careers.

The furore last May over the wording of the Executive’s Mine’s A Double T-shirt – designed to stop binge drinking, but criticised for demeaning women – suggests that the public is not yet comfortable with being infantilised. But beware – such rows are far too rare. Which shows that there is a lot more scope for the development of the moralising imperative. Last December, only 13% of Scots supported an all-out ban on smoking in public places, yet the Executive persisted. Today, support is running at 56%. Clearly, the government’s capacity for saving us from ourselves is boundless.

First published in the Sunday Herald, 3 July 2005